JERUSALEM — After years of pleading with Europe, Israel today welcomed the decision by the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers to embargo Iranian crude oil and freeze the assets of Iran’s central bank.
Speaking in Vienna, where he was meeting Lamberto Zannier, the secretary general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, “we hope this decision will constitute a warning to the Iranian leadership and will bring about a change of policies before there is a need for more severe measures.”
The unprecedented decision arrived one day before EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton is set to visit Israel, and will all but guarantee Europe greater leverage than it has ever had in pressuring Israel toward significant movement in the EU-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now battling right-wing elements in his own party over the dismantling of illegal outposts and settlements in the West Bank, which Europe and the US demand. The fourth round of Palestinian-Israeli talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday in Amman, Jordan.
Netanyahu’s political predicament might explain his modulated response to Europe’s resolve against a nation Israel considers its principal existential threat. Speaking at a Likud faction meeting, he referred to the embargo as “a step in the right direction.”
Europe’s decision goes into effect immediately, with any new import contracts between European member states and Iran prohibited, and all existing agreements scheduled to be annulled by July.
Speaking in Brussels, Ashton said that Europe had “adopted tough new sanctions on Iran because of the concerns we have over their nuclear program.” Iran denies its nuclear enrichment program has military bearing.
Ashton continued, “We've added a series of new restrictions on the energy sector, including an embargo on Iranian crude imports to the EU and the financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, while ensuring that legitimate trade can continue under strict conditions.
She emphasized Europe’s hope that the new measures will bring Iran back to the negotiating table. “I want the pressure of these sanctions to result in negotiations. I want to see Iran come back to the table and either pick up all the ideas that we left on the table last year, or to come forward with its own ideas,” she said.
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Speaking to GlobalPost from Washington, DC, Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute, estimated there is an outside chance the Iranian regime would be compelled to resume negotiations.
“There is a real question about how much longer the government in Tehran will withstand the pressure, and when the Iranian people might start demanding their government behave differently,” he said.
“The value of the dollar has more than doubled. It was at 950 tomans to a dollar and today stands at 2,000.” (The toman, a tenth of a rial, is the common name of the Iranian currency.)
“Today’s decision is going to hurt ordinary people in their pockets. They can’t help but pay attention to the root cause behind what is going on, which is the behavior of their own government. The regime can resist and go down the path of North Korea, or maybe, say 'you know what, we can’t carry on like this.' This is having a huge impact on the nation and on the survival of the regime. They could accept the offer of negotiations that is being presented to them.”
“Unfortunately for Iranians, the regime continues to put its own survival ahead of the wellbeing of the people.”
Vatanka, who maintains contact with colleagues in Tehran, said that Iranian analysts are well aware that China and other Asian states that continue to buy Iranian oil will not, on their own, be able to sustain the Islamic Republic’s economy.
After the European decision was announced, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwell called on non-European states to follow suit, saying, “It is easy to say oil embargo, but if the message to the Iranian leadership is to be clear, it needs more than just a Western voice. It needs an international voice.”