JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—The European Union voted on Monday to escalate sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s march to nuclear weapons by declaring an embargo on the country’s oil exports. Sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank are also expected.
The embargo begins immediately with a ban on new contracts for crude oil and petroleum products, while existing contracts must be ended by July 1.
The EU diplomats in Brussels also approved new travel bans on Syria and an asset freeze over the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, for his continuing bloody crackdown on the Syrian opposition.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters she hopes the sanctions would persuade Tehran to negotiate.
“I want the pressure of these sanctions to result in negotiations,” she told reporters before the ministers’ meeting. “I want to see Iran come back to the table and either pick up all the ideas that we left on the table … last year … or to come forward with its own ideas,” she said.
Tehran continues to deny that its nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons, despite a definitive report last year by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency that revealed evidence to the contrary.
The new EU sanctions follow measures enacted three weeks ago by US President Barack Obama against Iran’s oil sector. The EU imports some 90 percent of Iranian exports in the form of oil, second only to China as Iran’s largest oil customer.
Meanwhile, a US aircraft carrier sailed freely in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday, ignoring a threat by Iran to take action if an American carrier returned to the strategic waterway.
The carrier USS Abraham Lincoln completed a “regular and routine” passage through the bottleneck that controls the region’s oil exports, “as previously scheduled and without incident,” said Lieutenant Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US Fifth Fleet.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is to arrive in Israel on Tuesday for talks on Iran and the peace process with the Palestinians. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators officials are to meet for a fifth time in Amman on Wednesday.
Ashton is to meet first with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then with President Shimon Peres. From Jerusalem she will then travel to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
During the rest of the week she is also to meet with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.