Senior UN inspectors arrived in Tehran today for talks on Iran's disputed nuclear programme, a day after the Islamic state responded defiantly to tightened EU sanctions by halting oil sales to British and French companies.
The European Union enraged Tehran last month when it decided to impose a boycott on its oil from July 1. Tensions rose as Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the main Gulf oil shipping lane, and the United States signalled it would use force to keep it open.
Yesterday, its oil ministry went a step further, announcing Iran has now stopped selling oil to French and British firms, although the move will be largely symbolic as France or Britain had already greatly reduced purchases of Iranian crude.
"Exporting crude to British and French companies has been stopped ... We will sell our oil to new customers," spokesman Alireza Nikzad was quoted as saying on the ministry website.
China, in rare criticism of one of its major oil suppliers, rebuked Iran over the move. "We have consistently upheld dialogue and negotiation as the way to resolve disputes between countries, and do not approve of exerting pressure or using confrontation to resolve issues," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing when asked about the matter.
China buys around 20 per cent of total Iranian oil exports.
Iran, which denies Western allegations that it is covertly seeking the means to build nuclear weapons, has ramped up its rhetoric in recent weeks while also expressing willingness to resume negotiations on its nuclear project.
The five-member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, led by the chief of its global inspectorate Herman Nackaerts, will have two days of talks in another effort to extract explanations regarding intelligence pointing to military dimensions to Iran's declared civilian nuclear programme.
Asked if the IAEA delegation would visit Iran's nuclear facilities, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told the student news agency ISNA: "No. Their work has just begun."