Europe toughens stance on Iranian nuclear ambitions

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European Union leaders tightened the screw on Iran yesterday by approving new sanctions to block oil and gas investment and curb its refining and natural gas capability.

The measures go significantly beyond those approved by the United Nations last week. Germany – which has extensive interests in Iran's oil and gas industries – and Sweden dropped their opposition to tougher measures amid growing demands from other EU states, including Britain.

The stronger-than-expected EU sanctions, which could take effect within weeks, are designed to ratchet up the pressure on Iran to return to talks on its uranium enrichment. The sanctions will target trade, banking and insurance, shipping, air cargo and key sectors of the gas and oil industry and are likely to put strong financial pressure on Iran, which is the world's fifth largest crude oil exporter but has little refining capability. David Cameron told a Brussels press conference Europe agreed that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons was "fundamentally unacceptable."

He added: "We want a diplomatic solution. Today Europe has asked Iran to return to the negotiating table and has made it clear that the alternative is further isolation and further pain for the Iranian economy."

The EU leaders said they "deeply regret that Iran has not taken the many opportunities which have been offered to it to remove the concerns of the international community over the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. Under these circumstances, new restrictive measures have become inevitable."

However, Russia criticised the EU and the US for imposing extra sanctions on top of those Moscow agreed to support. "We are extremely disappointed that neither the United States nor the European Union is heeding our calls to refrain from such steps," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying.