May 21, 2013
EU tightens Iran sanctions, Ashton sees more talks
European Union governments agreed further sanctions against Iran's banking, shipping and industrial sectors on Monday, cranking up financial pressure on Tehran in the hope of drawing it into serious negotiations on its nuclear programme.
The decision by EU foreign ministers reflected mounting concerns over Iran's nuclear intentions and Israeli threats to attack Iranian atomic installations if a mix of sanctions and diplomacy fails to lead to a peaceful solution.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hoped that turning up the heat on the Islamic Republic would persuade it to make concessions and that negotiations could resume "very soon".
"I absolutely do think there is room for negotiations," said Ashton, who represents the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany in their on-and-off talks with Iran. "I hope we will be able to make progress very soon."
The new sanctions mark one of the EU's toughest moves against Iran to date and a significant change of policy for the 27-member bloc, which has hitherto focused largely on targeting specific people and companies with economic restrictions.
The EU has lagged the United States in imposing blanket industry bans because it says it is concerned not to punish ordinary Iranian citizens while inflicting pain on the Tehran government.
Iran maintains that its nuclear project has only peaceful energy purposes and has refused in three rounds of talks since April to scale back its uranium enrichment activity unless major economic sanctions are rescinded.
But governments in Europe and the United States, doubting Iran's preparedness for more than dilatory "talks about talks", are instead tightening the financial screws on Tehran and fears of a descent into a new Middle East war are growing.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was more pessimistic than Ashton about the prospect that additional economic pain might drive Tehran - whose Islamic Revolution has long thrived on defiance of the West - to make concessions.
"Iran is still playing for time," he told reporters. "We don't see a sufficient readiness for substantial talks about the nuclear programme."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his re-election campaign on Monday by saying Israel had new unspecified "capabilities" to act against Iran's nuclear threat.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech in London called on Israel not to launch any unilateral action against Iran and allow more time for sanctions to have an impact.
"Iran is not just a threat to Israel. It is a threat to the world," Cameron said in a speech to the annual dinner of the United Jewish Israel Appeal.
"A negotiated settlement remains within Iran's grasp for now. But until they change course, we have a strategy of ever tougher sanctions," he added.