EU plans major new sanctions against Iran

EU governments are approving new measures against the Tehran banking sector.

Flags of countries belonging to the European Union. Picture: AFP

LUXEMBOURG - European Union governments plan to ratchet up sanctions pressure against Iran over its nuclear programme on Monday, approving new measures against Tehran's banking sector, industry and shipping.

The new sanctions mark one of the toughest pushes against Iran by Europe to date, and come amid mounting concerns over the Islamic Republic's military intentions and the failure of diplomacy to solve the atom stand-off this year.

Iran insists its nuclear work has only peaceful dimensions and has refused in three rounds of talks since April to scale it back unless major economic sanctions are lifted.

But governments in Europe and the United States have refused to do so and, instead, are tightening the financial screws against Tehran as fears grow that the nuclear dispute could envelop the Middle East in a new war.

"In the last couple of months Iran has not budged on any of the key issues and we must therefore increase the pressure through sanctions," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin.

Speaking a day before his counterparts meet in Luxembourg to approve new sanctions, he said diplomacy was still an option.

"Our offer to Iran still stands: substantial negotiations with the clear aim of preventing Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons. It is time for a political solution."

Iran's nuclear interlocutors - Germany, France, Britain, United States, China and Russia - asked Tehran this year to abandon the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a crucial technological step on route to producing an atom bomb.

Tehran's refusal has lead Israel, widely understood to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, to threaten to bomb its nuclear installations.

At Monday's Luxembourg meeting, foreign ministers will also extend measures levied against Belarus over human rights abuses, and approve a new round of sanctions against Syria to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to halt violence against rebels.

On Sunday night, EU foreign ministers dined with Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, a long-time supplier of arms to Assad's government - though Lavrov said in June that Moscow is not delivering offensive weapons to Syria.

"We must not cease to strive for common solutions to international problems, even when this is very difficult, as with the current conflict in Syria," Westerwelle said.

The dinner lasted three-and-a-half hours, and was "very open and frank and friendly", according to one EU diplomat. The foreign ministers talked first about bilateral issues between the European Union and Russia, and then about international issues, in particular Syria and Iran.