Iran halts oil sales to UK, France on eve of talks

Sun Feb 19, 2012 6:09pm EST
 
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By Parisa Hafezi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran ordered a halt to its oil sales to Britain and France on Sunday in a move seen as retaliation against tightening EU sanctions, as a team of U.N. inspectors flew to Tehran to press the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear program.

The European Union enraged Tehran last month when it decided to impose a boycott on its oil from July 1. Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, responded by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, the main Gulf oil shipping lane.

On Sunday, its oil ministry went a step further, announcing Iran has now stopped selling oil to France and Britain altogether - a powerful yet largely symbolic message since neither European nation relies on Iranian crude imports.

"Exporting crude to British and French companies has been stopped ... we will sell our oil to new customers," spokesman Alireza Nikzad was quoted as saying on the ministry website.

Iran, which denies Western allegations that it is seeking to make nuclear weapons, has ramped up its rhetoric in recent weeks while also expressing willingness to resume negotiations on its nuclear program.

A five-member team from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flew to Tehran late on Sunday for talks, although Western diplomats have played down any hopes of a major breakthrough in the two-day meeting.

"I'm still pessimistic that Iran will demonstrate the substantive cooperation necessary," one envoy said in Vienna.

Yet the outcome of this week's discussions is important and will be watched closely because it could either intensify the standoff or offer scope to reduce tensions.   Continued...

 
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to film or take pictures in Tehran.  Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi talks to journalist during a news conference in Tehran February 4, 2012. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi