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Iran agrees to IAEA talks as EU approves tougher sanctions

Iran said Monday that it was open to negotiations with the IAEA over a nuclear fuel swap deal. The report comes just after the EU agreed to levy tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.


AFP - The European Union and Canada hammered Iran with fresh sanctions against its energy sector Monday, as the West cranked up pressure on Tehran to resume talks on its disputed nuclear programme.

European foreign ministers formally adopted new punitive measures, going beyond a fourth set of UN sanctions imposed over Tehran's refusal to freeze nuclear work, echoed by Canada within hours.

The moves, which follow similar sanctions imposed by the United States, are aimed at reviving moribund talks between Iran and six world powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US.

"Today we sent out a powerful message to Iran, and that message is that their nuclear programme is a cause of serious and growing concern to us," EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton told reporters.

"But our objective remains, as I have always said, to persuade Iranian leaders that their interest is served by a return to the table. Sanctions are not an end in themselves," she said after the ministers met in Brussels.

Iran responded by saying the sanctions would fail and would only serve to complicate its showdown with the West.

"Sanctions are not considered an effective tool... and they will only complicate the situation," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Oil Minister Masoud Mirkazemi said the punitive measures would have no impact on the country's oil production because European oil firms had "no presence" in Iran's energy sector.

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.

New investments in the energy sector are also banned.

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 domestic demand.

The Iranian banking sector was also hit by restrictions, forcing any transactions over 40,000 euros (52,000 dollars) to be authorised by EU governments before they can go ahead.

The identities of those hit by the new measures will be published in the official EU journal on Tuesday. Diplomats said 41 individuals and 22 government entities were concerned.

Canada's sanctions also take aim at Iran's energy and banking sectors, as well as chemical, biological and nuclear activities, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

Canada will also bar all new investment in Iran's energy industry, particularly crude oil refining and liquefied natural gas.

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.

Western powers have demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment programme, fearing that Tehran would use the material to build a nuclear bomb. Tehran says its atomic programme is a peaceful drive to produce energy.

"Iran's ongoing refusal to engage constructively on this issue leaves us no option but to implement these sanctions," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The longer Iran refuses to talk to the six world powers, "the greater the pressure and isolation Iran will bring upon itself," he added.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at the weekend Tehran was ready to hold immediate talks on a nuclear swap deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in May.

World powers have given the cold shoulder to that deal, a counter-proposal to the October agreement.

But Iran answered questions raised by the United States, Russia and France over the May deal in a letter delivered to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday, the IAEA said.

Ashton said she "welcomed" the move but had to study the details.

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