Ban on Iranian gas imports

EU poised to agree ban on Iranian gas imports.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Picture AFP

BRUSSELS - The European Union is poised to ban imports of Iranian gas as part of a set of new measures to ratchet up pressure on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme, diplomats said on Thursday.

Diplomats from EU member states have started preparing a package of sanctions against Iran with a goal of formally adopting them at a meeting of foreign ministers on October 15 in Luxembourg.

Late on Wednesday, they reached a preliminary deal to ban gas imports, the first measure to win approval in the package, which also consists of various finance and energy-related proposals, three EU diplomats said.

"There is agreement on gas," one of the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The big states back it, Germany, Britain, France," another one said.

European governments and the United States are searching for fresh ways to pressure Tehran into scaling back its nuclear programme after diplomacy foundered earlier this year. Tehran denies its work has any military intentions.

Tensions over the issue are rising, with Israel - widely thought to be the only power in the Middle East with nuclear weapons - threatening to strike Iranian uranium enrichment installations.

The United States, since 1995, has banned US firms from investing in Iranian oil and gas and from trading with Iran. Last December it adopted steps that prompted buyers in Japan, South Korea and India to cut Iranian oil purchases and in July it announced sanctions against foreign banks helping Tehran sell oil.

The European Union has been much slower to target Iranian energy. It imposed an embargo on Iranian oil this year, after banning the creation of joint ventures with enterprises in Iran engaged in the oil and natural gas industries in 2010.

Existing sanctions cover investment in Iranian gas, but do not specifically outlaw imports, which are insignificant in terms of volume but have a symbolic importance.

The EU sources said any Iranian gas that reaches Europe comes via Turkey, which blends it with Azeri gas and ships it on.