BRUSSELS: The European Union hammered Iran on Monday with fresh sanctions against its vital energy sector as Brussels cranked up pressure on Tehran to resume talks on its disputed nuclear program.
Foreign ministers formally adopted punitive measures which were approved last month by EU leaders, going beyond a fourth set of UN sanctions imposed over Tehran’s refusal to freeze nuclear work, diplomats said.
The European sanctions are part of a dual-track approach, with EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton seeking to revive moribund talks between Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US.
"We want to see dialogue on nuclear weapons capability to start as soon as possible in order to reach an agreement," Ashton told reporters ahead of a regular meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
"Until we get to that point we will continue to take our responsibilities seriously… (The) purpose of those sanctions is to persuade Iran, ‘we need to discuss this issue, and move forward,’" she said.
The EU measures include a ban on the sale of equipment, technology and services to Iran’s energy sector, hitting activities in refining, liquefied natural gas, exploration and production, diplomats said.
There is also a prohibition on new investments in the energy sector.
Ashton has exchanged letters with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in recent weeks in a bid to revive talks, and Tehran has indicated that the talks could resume in September.
The last high-level meeting between Iran and the six world powers was held in Geneva in October 2009 when the two sides agreed a nuclear fuel swap that has since stalled.
"We are adopting an extended-hand policy, but Iran would also have to grab it," Werner Hoyer, the German deputy foreign minister, told reporters.
"I think that some in Iran were not expecting the European Union to adopt such sanctions. They are starting to think in Iran," he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at the weekend that Tehran was ready to hold immediate talks on a nuclear swap deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in May and would convey that message in a letter to the UN nuclear agency on Monday.
That deal, a counter-proposal to the October 2009 agreement, has been cold-shouldered by world powers.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had warned the EU on Sunday against imposing unilateral sanctions, saying Tehran would react swiftly and cause "remorse."
"We do not welcome any tension or a new resolution. We seek logic and friendship," Ahmadinejad said in remarks which were translated into English by the Press TV channel.
Western powers have demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program, fearing that Tehran would use the material to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says its atomic program is a peaceful drive to produce energy.
The new EU sanctions follow a similar move by the United States against Iran’s energy sector.
Iran is the world’s fourth largest producer of crude oil, but imports 40 percent of its fuel needs because it lacks enough refining capabilities to meet demand.
The unilateral US and EU sanctions are "expected to have a material impact on the country’s energy industry," the International Energy Agency said last week.
The EU sanctions also ban dual-use goods that can be used for conventional weapons. It will also step up vigilance of the activities of Iranian-connected banks operating in the EU and bar them from setting up branches.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said sanctions alone would not be enough to resolve the nuclear dispute.
"I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that this issue will be sorted out by sanctions alone. So I think that we’ll have to look at the different ways with which we can strengthen and emphasize the diplomatic track," Bildt said.