Deal lets Europe trade with Cuba and Libya

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AFTER marathon negotiations, the United States and Europe have cleared the way to end the dispute over American sanctions on foreign companies dealing with Iran, Libya and Cuba, which has poisoned transatlantic trade relations.

President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and European Commission President Jacques Santer acknowledged after yesterday's annual EU-US summit in London that the details remain to be worked out. But as Mr Blair put it: "This avoids a showdown, and establishes the basis for a lasting solution."

Europe has been irritated by US sanctions against investors in energy projects in Iran and Libya, and the separate Helms-Burton bill which punishes companies which acquire assets in Cuba which Washington considers to have been illegally seized by Fidel Castro's regime.

The essence of the deal is that the US will waive specific sanctions as long as parent countries of companies co-operate with the "broad objectives" of US law denying Tehran and Tripoli the means of acquiring nuclear and chemical weapons.

One immediate effect will be a "limited case waiver" lifting sanctions against the French oil group Total, which is in charge of a $2bn gas pipeline project in Iran.

The compromise was probably the only feasible middle path between the insistence of the US Congress that sanctions are essential to bring Libya and Iran to heel, and the view of much of Europe that such sanctions are illegal.

Cuba is trickier, given that Congress must assent to the waiving of sanctions against foreign firms which invest in illegally acquired property, as stipulated in the Helms-Burton bill. EU companies will escape as long as governments do not support them in Cuba and keep pressure on President Castro to bring in democracy.