WASHINGTON — Even as they tightened the financial screws on Iran with new sanctions on Monday, the United States and its European allies reiterated their readiness to resume talks with Tehran on curbing what they suspect is a secret nuclear weapons development program.
European Union foreign ministers agreed to a phased ban on Iranian oil purchases by the bloc's 27 states, and the Obama administration took action under which foreign institutions doing business with Iran's third largest bank could be cut off from the U.S. financial system. The blacklisting of Bank Tejarat brought to 23 the number of Iranian financial institutions under U.S. sanctions for allegedly funding Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
By intensifying the pressure on Iran — but keeping the door open to talks — the United States and the EU underscored their goal of averting what many experts fear is a rising threat of a Persian Gulf military confrontation that could disrupt exports from the world's main oil-producing region, dealing a fresh blow to the wobbly global economy.
"To avoid any military solution, which could have irreparable consequences, we have decided to go further down the road to sanctions," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in Brussels. "It is a good decision that sends a strong message and which I hope will persuade Iran that it must change its position, change its line and accept the dialogue that we propose."
The Obama administration hailed the EU decision, under which the bloc's members won't sign new oil contracts with Iran and will terminate existing agreements by July 1. The ban also applies to purchases of Iranian petrochemical products and sales of petroleum technology to Tehran.
In a joint statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called the EU move a "strong step." But they reiterated that the United States and other powers were looking for Iran "to engage seriously in discussions with the international community on its nuclear program."
Iran has defied six U.N. resolutions since 2003 demanding that it suspend its enrichment of uranium, which it kept hidden from international inspections for 18 years. The process produces low-enriched uranium, for power generation, and highly enriched uranium, which is used to fuel nuclear weapons.
Iran insists that the program is for peaceful purposes. But the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency reported in November that Iran had been working on a missile-borne nuclear warhead, and that it still may be pursuing some parts of the effort.
The EU action targeting Iran's oil exports — the country's main source of income — followed a similar move by President Barack Obama, who signed legislation Dec. 31 that denies access to the U.S. financial system to foreign entities that do business with Iran's central bank. The central bank handles most payments for Iranian oil sales.
Iran is beginning to suffer serious economic consequences from U.N. sanctions and unilateral U.S. and EU measures. But Tehran showed no sign Monday of officially accepting a 3-month-old EU invitation to resume talks on its nuclear program.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi told the state-run news agency that sanctions "have proved ineffective in the past and will prove futile in the future, too."
EU nations, which are collectively the world's second largest purchaser of Iranian oil, will suffer "further complications" to their own struggling economies as a result of their Iranian oil purchase ban, Aragchi said.
Two senior Iranian lawmakers also were quoted by state-run media as reiterating a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which some 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil is shipped, in response to a disruption of Iranian petroleum exports.
The renewed threat came a day after a U.S. Navy strike group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, cruised into the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. It was joined by French and British warships — an unambiguous statement of resolve to use force if Iran tries to blockade the 30-mile-wide passage.
Asked how Iran could show that it would engage in serious talks on its nuclear program, an administration official told McClatchy that Tehran must agree to resume negotiations "without preconditions."
The last talks collapsed in January 2011after Tehran demanded international recognition of its right to uranium enrichment and the lifting of all sanctions before it would discuss the nuclear program.
"Iran must provide an assurance that it is prepared to reopen talks without preconditions and engage in a constructive and serious manner," said the administration official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "We are not interested in talks for show alone."
An EU diplomat, who requested anonymity for the same reason, said that Iran would have to respond to the EU invitation by stating unambiguously "that they are prepared to discuss the nuclear issue."
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