WASHINGTON — In a diplomatic turnabout after years of U.S.-European strains over how to confront Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the 27-nation European Union Thursday gave initial approval to the toughest sanctions on Iran in its history.
The restrictions will exceed those in a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted last week and move Europe closer to a broad trade embargo of the kind the United States has adopted.
Chief among the measures adopted at an EU summit in Brussels is a ban on new investment in Iran's oil and gas industry. Other steps would target Iran's financial sector, its shipping insurance business and the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line. Final details are to be worked out by late July.
The EU's actions follow by a day the Obama administration's announcement of its own unilateral sanctions and indicated a growing convergence in the West on the need to take a tougher line with Iran.
France, under President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been more hawkish than President Barack Obama has, but other countries, such as Germany and Italy, have been less enthusiastic about harsher sanctions.
What's changed minds, diplomats and analysts said, are last year's revelations of that Iran was building a covert uranium enrichment facility; evidence that the country was secretly buying equipment for military use; the regime's repression following the disputed June 2009 election; and a perception that Iran rebuffed Obama's attempts to engage the country's leaders.
"It's more difficult to defend Iran today than it was a year and two weeks ago," a European diplomat said Thursday, referring to the killings, arrests and intimidation that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election. The official wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
"The fact that the (Obama) administration really, clearly, genuinely reached out to the Iranians and got the response we saw" convinced some European officials that there was no other choice but to impose tougher sanctions, he said.
Whether the new U.N., U.S. and EU sanctions will have any impact on Iran's economic calculus about the cost of maintaining a suspected nuclear weapons program remains to be seen, however.
"It will just mean that investment will be made by the Russians and the Chinese," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yet as Dale and many diplomats noted, only Western companies have the advanced oil and gas technology needed to extract hydrocarbons from some of Iran's largest fields.
A second European diplomat acknowledged that, "We have no assurance" that the sanctions will bring Iran to the negotiating table. However, he said, historically Iran has only made concessions "under utmost pressure."
Russia, which voted for the new U.N. sanctions, on June 10 criticized the U.S. and the EU for taking additional, unilateral steps, news reports from Moscow said.
"The same story is repeated again and again: as soon as we reach a common understanding in the U.N. Security Council on a package of finely calibrated measures to influence Iran through sanctions, the United States and EU don't stop at that and, strictly speaking, display political disregard for their partnership with Russia," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Testifying on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates termed Russia's approach to Iran "schizophrenic."
"Russia, they recognize the security threat that Iran presents," Gates said. "But then there are these commercial opportunities, which, frankly, are not unique to them and Europe."
A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday found that in 19 of 22 countries surveyed, majorities of those who oppose Iran's nuclear program favor tougher economic sanctions to stop it. The poll found lesser support for military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
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