Washington adopted a new round of stiff measures Dec. 31 aimed at hampering Tehran’s sale of oil on international markets. The European Union, which imports 18 percent of Iran’s crude oil production, will decide on an oil embargo at the end of January.
The Barack Obama administration is moving to choke off Iran’s oil exports, the country’s largest source of revenue. The White House sent delegations to Iran’s major customers, including China, Japan, India and South Korea, to pressure them to stop buying oil from Iran. All but Beijing have indicated they will comply. Washington is simultaneously pressing Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates to provide oil to take the place of that supplied by Iran.
The U.S. State Department has imposed sanctions on China’s state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong, said to be Iran’s largest supplier of refined petroleum products. Sanctions have also hit a Singapore-based energy trader.
The Iranian government is moving ahead with development of its nuclear program, which Tehran says is for energy production and medical research.
Fereydoon Abbasi, director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, announced Jan. 7 that the country’s second major uranium enrichment site “will soon be opened and become operational” at the Fordo nuclear plant near the city of Qum. The plant is buried deep underground on a well-defended military site and is considered far more resistant to potential air strikes than the existing one.
An unnamed Iranian official told Reuters Jan. 9 that the enrichment has in fact started. The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran has begun enriching uranium up to 20 percent for medical isotopes, which scientists consider a step toward being able to produce weapons-grade uranium.
France’s foreign ministry stated that the news “leaves us with no other choice but to reinforce international sanctions and to adopt, with our European partners and all willing countries, measures of an intensity and severity without precedent.”
Assassinations of Iranian scientistIran’s nuclear program has also been hit by bombings, computer worms and assassinations of scientists. On Jan. 11 the deputy director of Natanz uranium enrichment plant, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was killed by a bomb slapped to his car while driving. The modus operandi bore the signature of Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Since 2007 at least five nuclear scientists have been assassinated in similar actions.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington wasn’t involved in the killing of Roshan. Speaking the day after the murder to troops in Texas, he said, “We have some ideas who might be involved, but we don’t know exactly.” The Israeli government hasn’t commented.
Ali Larijani, Iranian speaker of parliament, said Tehran was open to “serious” talks regarding its nuclear program during a Jan. 12 visit to Turkey, one day after the assassination, reported the Christian Science Monitor. “Regarding the 5+1 talks, we have previously expressed Iran’s readiness to hold talks in order to resolve the issue.” This refers to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China—plus Germany.
In other developments, Iranian semiofficial news agency Fars reported Jan. 9 that Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine of Iranian descent and veteran of the Iraq war, has been sentenced to death for spying for the CIA. Hekmati, 28, is both a citizen of Iran and the U.S. He has 20 days to appeal his sentence.
While tensions are ratcheted up, both sides are acting to avoid any direct military confrontation.
According to the Jan. 14 Wall Street Journal, U.S. defense leaders are concerned that the Israeli military may be considering a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. President Obama, Panetta and other top officials “have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike.”
Washington and Tel Aviv have postponed major military maneuvers and anti-missile exercises, the New York Times reported Jan. 16, “to avoid further escalating tensions with Iran.”
U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv this week.
European Union officials are discussing postponing any oil embargo for six months, according to Bloomberg News, “to give some members time to find alternative supplies.”
U.S. official have also sent “direct messages to Iranian leaders against provocative actions,” according to the Journal.
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