Iran has consistently maintained that its nuclear development program is designed to further research and supply electricity. But it has refused full access to its facilities, which include a new underground uranium-enrichment plant.
U.S. and other officials suspect that Iran is seeking to acquire the means and technology to make nuclear warheads while at the same time improving the missiles that would carry them.
“The recent start of operations of enrichment of uranium to a level of up to 20 percent in the deeply buried underground facility in [Fordow] near Qom further aggravates concerns about the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” the E.U. ministers said in a communique.
The Obama administration praised the EU decision and also announced new sanctions targeting yet another Iranian bank, this one with ties to eastern Europe. The new sanctions were aimed at the Bank Terajat and its Belarus-based subsidiary, Trade Capital Bank of Minsk, which were described as one of a handful of institutions still used by Iran to access the international financial system.
“We have now imposed sanctions on all of Iran’s significant state banks,” a senior Treasury told reporters, insisting on anonymity in order to discuss details of the new measures.With a total of 23 Iranian banks now under sanctions, Iran has “largely been cut off from the global financial system” and faces significant obstacles in acquiring hard currency and financial services, the official said
Such sanctions, and the threat of new ones to come, have been a factor behind the plummeting value of the Iran’s currency, the rial, which has shed 70 percent of its value against the dollar since September, the official said.
Israel, the only Middle East nation that possesses nuclear weapons, has said that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its existence, and several Israeli officials have suggested that the Jewish state might at some point seek to destroy or impede the program through a bombing campaign.
On Monday, Israeli leaders, who have urged crippling sanctions on Iran, cautiously welcomed the E.U. move.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the E.U.’s embargo was “a step in the right direction,” but he added that the sanctions would have to be “evaluated on the basis of their results” and stressed that “very strong and quick pressure on Iran is necessary.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the European step “very important.” He said the new measures should be “imposed quickly and put into action in order to put the Iranian leadership to the test as soon as possible.”
Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington and correspondent Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.