Text size
related tags

Italy is expected to join a European Union consensus on Iran's nuclear program, after dropping earlier objections last week, possibly paving the way for new sanctions, a government official in Jerusalem said.

Outgoing Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema is expected to announce Rome's new position at an EU Council of Ministers meeting at the end of April, the Israeli said.

"The outgoing government does not want to enable prime minister-designate Silvio Berlusconi to portray it as a government that went against the whole European Union," the official said.

Jerusalem believes that Belusconi's return to office will strengthen the line for imposing additional sanctions on Iran. Israel has held strategic discussions with France, Germany and the U.K. in recent weeks, focusing on Iran's ongoing development of its nuclear program. Apparently, the EU sanctions will be directed mainly against Iranian financial institutions and European bank accounts owned by bodies linked to Tehran's nuclear program.

The sanctions are also expected to limit European companies' export permits to Iran.

Italy was the main European opponent to strengthening sanctions on Iran in the past year. The Italians held up the EU's ratification of a third Security Council resolution regarding Iran. Italy's position was at least partly based on economic interests. About a week ago Italy was cited as Iran's biggest trading partner among EU states, after the trade exchanges between them reached 6 billion euros in 2007. The Italians said they cut their trade with Iran by 19 percent last year. Next came Germany and France, both of which had trade with Iran last year that reached 4.096 billion euros.

An Israeli source said that Italy's objection to widening the sanctions on Iran was also based on the close ties between the outgoing Italian administration and senior Iranian officials. Outgoing Prime Minister Romano Prodi, for example, was the only EU leader to meet Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The UN nuclear agency's deputy chief pushed Iran yesterday for answers about persistent allegations that the Islamic republic is running a covert nuclear weapons program.

International Atomic Energy Agency deputy director general Olli Heinonen's discussions with Iranian officials focused on allegations that Iran is testing powerful explosives and seeking to design a missile re-entry vehicle, both of which could have applications for nuclear weapons.

Iran dismisses the allegations raised by U.S. intelligence agencies and insists its nuclear program is purely peaceful and geared solely toward producing electricity. A prominent Iranian hard-liner and aide to Iran's top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced his government for hosting Heinonen, saying the trip was part of a joint U.S.-Israeli ploy aimed at strengthening allegations that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

"It is a trick that looks ridiculous," Hossein Shariatmadari yesterday called Heinonen's trip in his conservative daily Kayhan.

The state news agency IRNA said yesterday was Heinonen's first day of talks with Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's permanent representative to the IAEA.

IRNA said the IAEA delegation would not visit any nuclear facility and would return to Vienna after holding a second day of talks in Tehran today.

Azerbaijan has halted a Russian shipment of equipment intended for Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant. Russian state-run company Atomstroiexport says trucks carrying the equipment were stopped at Azerbaijan's border with Iran two weeks ago. Company spokeswoman Irina Yesipova said Monday that officials were holding talks with both Azerbaijan and Iran.

Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Khazar Ibragim says his country is trying to get more information about the shipment, so that it can determine whether it violates United Nations sanctions in place against Iran.

Iran is paying Russia more than $1 billion to build the light-water reactor, which Tehran hopes to start up later this year.