LONDON - Besieged by international sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program including a planned oil embargo by Europe, Iran warned six European buyers yesterday that it might strike first by immediately cutting them off from Iranian oil.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency said the threat was conveyed to the ambassadors of Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Greece, and Portugal in separate meetings at the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. Officials said an earlier report by Press TV, Iran’s state-financed satellite broadcaster, that Iran already had cut supplies to the six nations was inaccurate - but not before word of the Press TV report sent a brief shudder across the global oil market, sending prices up slightly.
“Iran warns Europe it will find other customers for its oil,’’ the Islamic Republic News Agency said. “European people should know that if Iran changes destinations of the oil it gives to them, the responsibility will rest with the European governments themselves.’’
Last month, the European Union decided to impose an oil embargo on Iran as of July 1 as part of a coordinated campaign of Western sanctions aimed at pressuring Iran to halt its disputed uranium enrichment program. The Europeans have been making arrangements since then to find other sources.
The European Union has been one of Iran’s largest oil markets, taking about 18 percent of total Iranian petroleum exports in 2011. Among the EU members, the biggest buyers have been Italy, Spain, and France.
Tehran forecasted in December that a cutoff of Iranian oil could double the global price. But a combination of lower demand because of European economic weakness and ample sources of supply elsewhere have helped cushion the anticipated effects of both the planned embargo and Iran’s threat to stop exporting oil to Europe well before the embargo starts.
Saudi Arabia, the top producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, has said it could compensate for much of the shortfall from Iran, which is OPEC’s second-largest producer. And resurgent production from Libya, long crippled by the conflict there last year, has further added to the total global supply.
The relatively mild effects of the Iranian threat yesterday were reflected in prices at the New York Mercantile Exchange, where the March delivery price for oil closed up $1.06 a barrel yesterday to $101.80, a gain of 1 percent.
The sanctions, including severe restraints on Iran’s ability to conduct routine banking and shipping operations, have caused severe disruptions to Iran’s economy as the nuclear program remains an increasingly acrimonious issue between Iran and the West.
Iran’s warning came on a day of mixed messages emanating from the Tehran hierarchy about its nuclear program, which Western nations and Israel have called a cover for Iran’s attempts to become capable of making a weapon. Iran has said the program is peaceful.
At the same time Iran was warning its biggest European oil buyers, it also wrote to Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, to say it was willing to reopen nuclear talks suspended a year ago. The Iranians also unveiled new advances in their nuclear program, including escalation of Iran’s enrichment practices. If those gains materialize, they could serve to further aggravate tensions.
A spokeswoman for Ashton confirmed receipt of a letter from Dr. Saeed Jalili, who heads Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, sent in response to a letter from Ashton in October. The spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, did not disclose the contents but said, “We are carefully studying the letter.’’
The Iranian side also did not reveal the letter’s contents, but the Islamic Republic News agency paraphrased Jalili as saying in the letter that “returning to the negotiation table would be the best means to broaden cooperation between the two sides.’’
In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presided at ceremonies to mark advances in Iran’s nuclear program, partly to project an image of Iranian defiance against Western sanctions. The advances include centrifuges that Iran said were capable of enriching uranium at a much faster rate and the insertion of the first domestically produced nuclear fuel rod into a nuclear reactor in Tehran.
“The era of bullying nations has passed,’’ Ahmadinejad said in a televised broadcast of the ceremony. “The arrogant powers cannot monopolize nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed.’’
Iran’s nuclear announcements came as tensions have escalated in particular with Israel, which regards Iran as an existential threat and has hinted at the possibility of a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities to forestall Tehran’s suspected ambitions.
Iran has accused Israel, a nuclear weapons state, of responsibility for a clandestine campaign aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including the assassinations of at least four Iranian scientists since 2010. Israel has counter-accused Iran in recent days of retaliatory plots aimed at Israeli targets in Georgia, India, and Thailand, which Iran has denied.