E.U. Backs Sanctions on Iran, Freezes Bank Assets

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

PARIS, June 23 -- The European Union approved new sanctions against Iran on Monday, including a freeze on the assets of its largest bank, in a continuing effort to force Tehran to curtail its nuclear development programs and fully cooperate with international inspectors.

The new measures signal growing impatience among European leaders with what they see as Iranian foot-dragging in negotiations over halting uranium enrichment. Iran says the program is purely peaceful, but many Western countries contend that it is secretly geared toward developing nuclear weapons.

The E.U. sanctions, approved Monday at a meeting of the 27-nation bloc in Luxembourg, come on top of three sets of sanctions against Iran imposed by the U.N. Security Council in the last 18 months and a slew of sanctions levied unilaterally by the United States over the last two decades.

The new measures include an asset freeze on Bank Melli, Iran's largest bank, and other businesses connected to the country's nuclear and weapons programs, and a travel ban on high-level Iranian officials involved in those fields, according to an E.U. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The identities of the businesses and officials, who will be denied visas to European Union countries, are to be announced Tuesday.

The United States slapped sanctions on Bank Melli -- and on Bank Mellat and Bank Saderat -- last October, saying the first two institutions helped finance Iran's nuclear programs and the third financed terrorism.

Newspapers in Tehran reported last week that Iranian officials, concerned that the European Union was preparing to follow suit and freeze Iranian assets, recently transferred as much as $75 billion out of Europe.

The increasingly hard-line European stance complements continuing efforts by a group comprising the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the E.U. to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium in exchange for a package of political and economic concessions.

On June 12, the group proposed wide-ranging negotiations on a broad array of issues, but stipulated as a precondition that Iran had to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, steps that can be part of a nuclear energy or weapons program.

Iran has consistently refused to meet that demand, arguing that it has a right to uranium enrichment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The group of major powers concedes that point, but argues that Iran has lost the trust and confidence of many foreign governments, and so must first provide credible assurances that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Iran has not fully cooperated with U.N. inspectors who are trying to get to the bottom of the issue. Many world leaders believe Iran is stalling and buying time to advance its nuclear activities.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed-Ali Hosseini, speaking before the European Union made its decision on the sanctions, said Monday in his weekly press briefing in Tehran that "Iran is ready for talks" with the major powers on their incentive package, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. But he reiterated that Iran would not end its enrichment program first.

"Suspension of enrichment has no logic and therefore, Tehran's stand on the issue has not changed," the agency quoted Hosseini as saying.

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