As tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions continue, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began a three-day visit to Iran’s nuclear facilities. With the EU imposing oil sanctions on the Islamic Republic by July, Iranian officials were set to discuss cutting their oil imports to the EU before those sanctions were to take place, but the talks were postponed. Meanwhile, US efforts to persuade Asian countries to cut Iranian oil imports have hit more obstacles as India signalled its intention not to take steps to cut Iranian oil supplies.
Iran expresses “optimism” over IAEA’s Iran visit
Iran said it was optimistic about a three-day visit by the IAEA that began on Sunday but also warned the inspectors to be “professional” or it would backtrack on its cooperation.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, on a visit to Ethiopia, appeared to be trying to defuse the crisis. He said, “We are very optimistic about the mission and the outcome… We’ve always tried to put transparency as a principle in our cooperation with IAEA. During this visit, the delegation has questions and the necessary answers will be given.”
Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, struck a more strident tone, saying the visit was a “test” for the IAEA. “This visit is a test for the IAEA. The route for further cooperation will be open if the team carries out its duties professionally… Otherwise, if the IAEA turns into a tool (for major powers to pressure Iran), then Iran will have no choice but to consider a new framework in its ties with the agency,” Mr Larijani said.
The IAEA inspection delegation will try to push efforts to resolve a heated dispute about the nuclear programme which Iran says is for civilian use but the West suspects is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.
Ahead of his arrival, the agency’s deputy director general, Herman Nackaerts, said in unusually blunt terms that he wanted Iran to “engage us on all concerns.”
The IAEA delegation includes two senior weapons experts, Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa, suggesting Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations that it seeks the ability to make nuclear warheads.
In a sign of tensions, a dozen Iranian hard-liners carrying photos of slain nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan were waiting at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport early Sunday. Dr Roshan was killed in a bomb attack earlier this month in what Iran claims is part of Israeli-led covert operations of sabotage and assassinations.
It is unknown how much assistance Iran will provide, but even a decision to enter talks over the accusations would be a major break from Iran’s frequent refusal to discuss them. The findings from the visit could greatly influence the direction and urgency of US-led efforts to halt Iran’s ability to enrich uranium.
Iran to stop exporting oil to “some” countries, but postpones discussion on cutting oil imports to EU
Iranian oil minister Rostam Qasemi said his country would soon stop exporting crude to “some” countries. He did not identify the countries but spoke less than a week after the EU agreed to stop importing crude from Iran from 1 July.
Iranian lawmakers had been due to debate a bill Sunday that could have stopped oil supplies to the EU in days, in a move calculated to strike ailing European economies before the EU-wide ban on took effect.
However, the discussion was postponed. Emad Hosseini, spokesman for parliament's Energy Committee, said, “No such draft bill has yet been drawn up and nothing has been submitted to the parliament. What exists is a notion by the deputies which is being seriously pursued to bring it to a conclusive end.”
Iranian officials say sanctions have had no impact on the country. “Iranian oil has its own market, even if we cut our exports to Europe,” Mr Qasemi said.
Another lawmaker said the bill would obligate the government to cut Iran’s oil supplies to the EU for five to 15 years, the semi-official Fars news agency reported. Iranian officials hope to deny the EU a six-month window it had planned to give those of its members most reliant on Iranian oil to adapt.
Meanwhile, Head of the National Iranian Oil Company Ahmad Qalehbani said Sunday that pressures on Iran's oil exports could drive prices as high as $150 a barrel.
The price of benchmark US crude on Friday was around $99.56 a barrel, with prices driven higher in recent weeks by Iran’s warnings that it could blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil flows.
Mr Qalehbani added that Iran could find other customers for its oil in the short term, while in the longer term expanding its capacity to refine crude domestically instead of selling it on international markets.He said, “The sale of some 18 per cent of Iranian oil, to a market other than the EU, is quite possible. But our long term idea is to increase refining capacities to produce valuable products,” he said.
Report: Iran vows to stop "some" oil sales as inspectors visit [Reuters, 29 Jan 2012]
Report: Iran Hopeful On Visit By Inspectors [NY Times, 29 Jan 2012]
Report: UN Begins Iran Nuclear Inspection [Wall Street Journal, 29 Jan 2012]
Report: Iran hosts UN nuclear watchdog as tensions grow [AFP, 29 Jan 2012]
Report: Iran oil official says crude could reach $120 to $150 per barrel, downplays EU embargo [Washington Post, 29 Jan 2012]
India signals reluctance to cut Iranian oil imports
Meanwhile, in a setback to US efforts to get Asian countries to halt Iranian oil imports, India has said it will not take steps to cut oil imports from Iran, according to Indian finance minister on Sunday during a visit to Chicago.
The US wants buyers in Asia, the largest buyers of Iran’s oil, to cut imports to put further pressure on Tehran to stop its nuclear ambitions. Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, “It is not possible for India to take any decision to reduce the imports from Iran drastically, because among the countries which can provide the requirement of the emerging economies, Iran is an important country amongst them.”
India, the world’s fourth largest oil consumer, imports 12 per cent of its oil from Iran.
Report: India won't cut Iranian oil imports: finance minister [Reuters, 29 Jan 2012]