By David Blair
The Kremlin, which generally opposes Western attempts to tighten United Nations sanctions, criticised Iran for starting to enrich uranium at up to 20 per cent purity inside a previously secret plant. This facility, located at Fordow near the city of Qom, is buried beneath a mountainside and could be invulnerable to military attack.
A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said that Moscow has “with regret and worry received the news of the start of work on enriching uranium at the Iranian plant”.
Iran only declared Fordow to the International Atomic Energy Agency after the facility was discovered by western intelligence agencies. Russia was also kept in the dark – a fact that damaged the Kremlin’s relations with Iran. However Tehran retains a firm ally in the shape of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who publicly mocked the west’s concerns about its nuclear ambitions on Tuesday.
Later this month, the EU is expected to maximise the economic pressure on Iran by agreeing an embargo on the country’s oil. A meeting of foreign ministers that will take this decision, previously scheduled for Jan 30, has been brought forward to Jan 23. An official said this was to avoid clashing with a summit of European heads of government and had nothing to do with the situation regarding Iran.
Nonetheless, no EU member state is believed to disagree with the principle of an oil embargo. The debate is solely about the practicalities of how to impose this measure.
In total, the EU buys about 450,000 barrels of Iranian oil every day, with almost all of this going to Greece, Italy and Spain. They are believed to be seeking a delay that would allow them to find alternative supplies and adapt their refineries to deal with crude oil from other sources.
An informed source said the outcome was likely to be a phased embargo, with an agreed delay before it comes fully into effect. Britain, France and Germany are understood to be seeking a transitional period of only three months, while Greece is believed to want an interval of about a year. A possible compromise would see a delay of between six and nine months.
This would also give Iran another chance to return to the negotiating table. If Tehran were to decline, the EU oil embargo would come into force and the western powers would also be in a better position to convince Russia and China to allow more United Nations sanctions.
Timothy Geithner, the US Treasury secretary, began an official visit to China yesterday with the partial aim of persuading Beijing to place more pressure on Iran’s economy.
But the Chinese state media said the government should ignore this pressure. “Global Times”, a newspaper backed by the Communist party, said: “China has made clear its opposition to further sanctions against Iran. Despite pressure from the US and European countries, China should continue trading with Iran.” The newspaper added: “If Chinese companies are sanctioned by the US due to their legal trade with Iran, China should take counter-measures.”
Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, on a visit to Venezuela, shared jokes about his country’s nuclear project with one his closest foreign allies, President Chavez.
“One of the targets that Yankee imperialism has in its sights is Iran, which is why we are showing our solidarity,” said Mr Chavez during a joint press conference with the Iranian president in Caracas. Scorning western fears of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Mr Chavez added: “That hill will open up and a big atomic bomb will come out.” Mr Ahmadinejad responded by praising his host as the “champion in the war on imperialism”.