A European Union ban on Iranian crude oil imports was to be formally decided by EU foreign ministers during a meeting at the end of January. However, diplomats in Brussels said on Friday that some EU capitals were pushing for a delay of the embargo to shield their debt-stricken countries from rising oil prices.
"There is a range of ideas, from one month to one year," an EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency.
Greece, which depends heavily on Iranian crude, was pushing for "the longest 'grace period' on existing oil contracts with Tehran", he said.
Vulnerable EU periphery
Greece meets a quarter of its needs with Iranian oil. Italy imports about 13 percent and Spain nearly 10 percent. All three have serious sovereign debt problems.
Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti said this week he would push for a gradual introduction of the embargo, and would ask that deliveries to repay Tehran’s debts to Italian energy firm ENI were exempt from the sanctions.
France, Germany and others countries want the oil ban to be imposed swiftly, pushing for a maximum grace period of three months. Other EU members are suggesting the impact of the sanctions should be reviewed after a fixed period, with the possibility of suspending them if they prove ineffective.
The oil embargo is the EU's boldest step so far, in an increasingly tense standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.
Iran has denied military intent and refuses to stop enrichment of uranium for what it describes as civilian purposes.
Tehran was "not concerned at all", Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference on Thursday. "Iran, with divine assistance, has always been ready to counter such hostile actions," he said.
Most oil traders believe Iran will be able to find buyers, at least in the short term, for its exports of 2.6 billion barrels of oil per day. But it may have to offer steep discounts that will reduce the hard currency it urgently needs.
After US president Barack Obama last weekend imposed tougher sanctions on Iran, the announcement by the EU to follow suit has caused a steady rise in oil prices this week.
Author: Uwe Hessler (Reuters, dpa, AFP)
Editor: Nicole Goebel