UPDATE 3-French slip on solo Iran oil ban puts spotlight on EU

Thu Nov 24, 2011 5:44pm GMT
 

* Spokesman says France will act only with EU partners

* Paris asks Western allies to stop Iranian crude imports

* Some Western countries wary oil ban to hurt global economy

By John Irish and Marie Maitre

PARIS, Nov 24 (Reuters) - A slip by a French government official on Thursday, mistakenly suggesting Paris was about to unilaterally ban Iranian oil imports, has raised expectations that European Union countries could consider a boycott of the OPEC producer's oil sales to step up the pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme.

France's foreign ministry first suggested and then back-tracked on the imposition of a unilateral ban on oil from Iran, making clear it would only act over Iran's nuclear programme as part of an EU-wide plantners.

In an initial statement posted on the ministry website, in response to a Reuters question, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said:

"The interruption of Iranian oil purchases is among the measures proposed by France to its partners. We will apply this at a national level."

Another spokesman later called the wording ambiguous, and the ministry changed its orginal statement to: "The decision at a national level will be applied in coordination with our European partners."

Nevertheless the French remarks provoked a wave of comment across Europe, suggesting a growing determination to toughen sanctions -- an issue that is likely to be central to an EU foreign ministers' meeting on Dec. 1.

"We are discussing wide-ranging sanctions (on) Iran with partners in the EU," a UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said, adding Britain expects to announce sanctions on further Iranian "entities and individuals."

The U.S. government said in a statement Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "expected more actions from our partners in the coming weeks that will send a clear message to the Iranian regime."

The EU's energy commissioner said a ban on Iranian oil imports would not be a problem for the European Union's energy security.

"This is not a problem. It can be substituted by OPEC and others," Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said.

Europe saw a big drop in crude supplies from Libya when civil war broke out this year but Libyan deliveries are rising again now.

While most of Iran's oil goes to Asia, it still supplies significant volumes to Europe via the Suez Canal.

U.S. government data shows EU countries accounted for 18 pct of Iranian oil purchases in the first half of 2011 or 450,000 bpd. Italy was the leading buyer with 180,000 bpd, Spain took 137,000 bpd and France 20,000 bpd.

Libya at full output will deliver more than a million bpd to Europe.

The director of Italy's national oil industry body said Italian sanctions on imports of Iranian crude were inevitable.

The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced new sanctions on Iran's energy and financial sectors in steps aimed at raising pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear work, which is internationally thought to have a weapons dimension. Iran says it is aimed at peaceful atomic energy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the twin approach of freezing central banks assets and halting oil purchases earlier this week as a way of pressing Tehran to halt its nuclear programme.

Valero said on Tuesday Paris wanted a quick decision, but would confer with the European Union, adding he did not believe France would be alone in dropping Iranian oil.

Sarkozy's strong stance -- his spokeswoman said on Wednesday France would "set the example" -- comes when Paris has been taking a firmer position on Middle East policy than some its allies.

France was first to recognise Libyan rebels and push for military intervention in February. It has also called for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to stand down and on Thursday became the first world power to propose a humanitarian corridor be set up in the country to protect civilians.

It was also at odds over the United States on the Middle East peace process, culiminating in October's decision to back the Palestinian membership of the UN's cultural agency UNESCO.

France bought more Iranian oil in the first half of the year to make up for disruption from Libya, but French oil industry body UFIP said France would easily make up for an Iranian crude import shortfall.

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