EU affirms Iran oil ban, dismisses Greek concerns
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - EU governments on Monday formally approved an embargo on Iranian oil to start on July 1, dismissing calls by debt-ridden Greece for possible exemptions to help ease its economic crisis.
They also warned Iran that more pressure could be put in place if it continued to defy international demands for limits on its nuclear programme, which they say is geared to developing weapons. The Islamic Republic says its nuclear activity is for electricity production and other peaceful ends only.
"It is important that the Iranian leaders understand the resolve of the countries of the European Union on this," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
"We will go on intensifying the economic pressure until the world can be satisfied that Iran's nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes."
Greece had pushed for a delay in the implementation of the EU ban - originally drafted in January - because it relies heavily on Iranian crude oil to meet its energy needs. Tehran has offered preferential credit terms to debt-stricken Athens.
At a meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers said that the embargo would go ahead as planned, although they pledged to review its implementation in the future to ensure European governments retain sufficient access to crude.
"There is no change in terms of how we're going forward on July 1," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on the sidelines of the meeting. "The sanctions that have been agreed will be implemented."
Ashton said European governments hoped diplomacy could resolve the nuclear standoff soon, but they would keep sanctions against Iran under constant review and could crank up pressure.
"My ambition, my real ambition, is to try to resolve this as quickly as possible. We look for what further pressure were are able to do and these discussions continue pretty much consistently, to persuade Iran to come and negotiate with us."
A new package of financial sanctions by the United States comes into effect later this week.
DIPLOMACY AND SANCTIONS
In the short term, six world powers that negotiate with Iran under Ashton's leadership want Tehran to stop enriching uranium to a fissile level close to that needed to produce material for nuclear bombs.
But diplomatic efforts to solve the decade-long standoff faltered at a round of talks between Iran and the powers - United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - in Moscow this month, and Israel has renewed threats to attack Iran if it fails to rein in its nuclear work.
International pressure has already inflicted damage to the Iranian economy. The International Energy Agency says its crude exports have fallen by some 40 percent this year.
Europe was a major client for Iranian oil, but under the sanctions regime agreed in January EU governments have stopped signing new contracts for Iranian crude. Available data show deliveries virtually dried up in May and June.
Greece has lobbied other EU governments to allow purchases under previously signed deals after July 1, or to provide Athens with credit guarantees that would help it to buy crude elsewhere. These requests have been rejected, diplomats said.
The British government has also pushed for exemptions on the provision of insurance on Iranian crude, sold to countries outside of Europe, but has dropped such calls in the run-up to the July deadline. The vast majority of the world's oil tanker insurance is sold by British firms.
(Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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