BRUSSELS - Europe banned the import of Iranian oil yesterday and froze Europe-based assets of the Central Bank of Iran, intensifying an international campaign to choke Iran’s economy and force the radical Islamic government to dispel fears that it is working to develop nuclear weapons.
The ban, approved by foreign ministers of the 27-nation European Union, is a dramatic escalation of sanctions against Iran, joining with the United States to squeeze the oil earnings and financial transactions that the Tehran government depends on to sustain its citizens and finance its military.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, called the EU effort unprecedented and said it shows the resolve of European governments to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
But the decision also includes broad loopholes - including a six-month delay before it goes into effect - that soften its immediate practical impact. Existing contracts for Iranian oil can be respected until July 1, an announcement said, and the ban will come under review before May 1 to see if more flexibility is needed.
Countries such as Greece and Italy, suffering under crippling debt burdens, will probably get more time before they have to break their financial ties to Iran, European diplomats said.
Powerful figures in Iran immediately threatened retaliation, including calls to close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow exit from the Persian Gulf through which one-fifth of the world’s oil exports pass.
Ali Fallahian, a member of the country’s influential Assembly of Experts and a former intelligence minister, told the Fars News Agency that Iran should cut off sales to European nations immediately and, if the crisis grows, constrain maritime traffic through the strait.
Similarly, Mohammed Kossari, deputy chief of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said: “If any disruption occurs regarding sale of Iranian oil, the Strait of Hormuz will definitely be closed.’’
Iran had threatened earlier to close the strait, and the Obama administration has said that the United States would see the action as a line that it would not allow Iran to cross.
Underlining the point, a US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln sailed through the strait Sunday into the Persian Gulf, accompanied by two European frigates, the British Navy’s Argyll, and the French Navy’s La Motte-Picquet.
About 60 percent of Iran’s 2.2 million barrels a day of oil exports have been locked into contracts with China, Japan, and South Korea. Turkey accounts for an additional 7 percent. Traditionally, European customers have accounted for less than 20 percent of Iranian exports.
European ministers emphasized that their goal in imposing the sanctions was not to provoke more confrontation with Iran, but rather to push the nation to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear program and to increase openness for inspectors from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Obama administration praised the EU decision and announced new American sanctions targeting yet another Iranian bank, this one with ties to Eastern Europe. They were aimed at the Bank Terajat and its Belarus-based subsidiary, Trade Capital Bank of Minsk, which were described as one of a handful of institutions still used by Iran to access the international financial system.