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Iran Braces for EU Embargo

  • Lisa Bryant

An Iranian worker at the South Pars gas field in the southern Iranian port town of Asaluyeh.

An Iranian worker at the South Pars gas field in the southern Iranian port town of Asaluyeh.

PARIS - European Union sanctions against imports of Iranian oil went into effect Sunday. The sanctions are part of a growing arsenal of measures aimed at deterring Iran's nuclear program. But will they work?

Iran has had months to adjust to the new European Union sanctions, which were announced in January. The EU ban covers both oil imports from Iran and tanker insurance for ships carrying Iranian crude.

But Ali Ansari, Iran expert for the London think tank Chatham House, says Iran is surprisingly unprepared for the fallout.

"You would have thought they would have been expanding their avenue toward the east, but it looks like even the Chinese have reduced their take of Iranian oil - not dramatically, but they've reduced it. And it's become quite difficult to sell their oil elsewhere, partly because of the banking sanctions and their inability to move currency around," said Ansari.

The EU oil ban is part of a tightening noose of international sanctions against Iran's nuclear program - a program that Tehran claims is for peaceful purposes, but the West fears has military ends.

Little progress was made during talks last month between Iran and world powers in Moscow. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton acknowledged a substantial gap remained between the two sides.

"The choice is Iran's," she said. "We expect Iran to decide whether it is willing to make diplomacy work, to focus on reaching agreement on concrete, confidence-building steps and to address the concerns of the international community."

Europe is not likely to feel the bite of the import cutoff, at least in the short term. Oil prices have dropped in recent months and Saudi Arabia has stepped up its production. There are also media reports that the Saudis have reopened an alternative oil pipeline should the Iranians make good on threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil shipping route.

Iran warns the EU embargo will do nothing to end the standoff over its nuclear program. Analyst Ansari believes the sanctions will bite - though it is not clear how deeply.

"Those who think there's going to be an immediate impact … that's probably not true," he said. "The Iranians probably have enough of a cushion there to sustain themselves for a little while longer. But of course, the longer this drags out, the worse it's going to get for Iran."

Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations believes the embargo will have little effect.

"They are accustomed to live with sanctions," he said. "That's why today, they don't bother [Iran]. 'Well, another sanction, another embargo. We can go on with that.'"

The EU ban is clearly making a difference elsewhere. This past week, South Korea announced it will halt Iranian oil imports, becoming the first major Asian buyer of Iranian crude to do so.

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