Iran oil minister warns of new sale cuts to Europe

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Iran's oil minister on Thursday raised the prospect of more cutoffs in oil sales to the European Union if the bloc failed to show some flexibility toward Iran ahead of a second round of nuclear talks next month.

Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi said that while Iran has cut sales to Britain and France, it continues selling crude to "other countries" in the world. The remarks were likely to stir up confusion since they appeared to contradict earlier government statements that Tehran had also cut exports to Greece and Spain.

Iran first imposed the oil embargoes on Britain and France in February and in April, it said oil sales were cut to Greece and Spain as well. The measures were meant as pre-emptive retaliation ahead of an EU oil embargo that is due to go into effect in July.

The EU imposed the ban because of Iran's refusal to halt its controversial nuclear program. The bloc imports some 18 percent of total 2.2 million barrels of Iran's daily oil production.

Ghasemi said that if sanctions imposed by the 27-nation bloc were not lifted by the next round of nuclear talks between Tehran and world powers, then "we will surely cut oil to Europe."

"We are hopeful that they will lift sanctions on Iran's oil," said Ghasemi. "What we have officially cut is crude export to Britain and France. The oil sale to other countries has continued."

The West suspects Tehran's nuclear program is geared toward nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying its nuclear activities are only for peaceful purposes such as power generation and cancer treatment.

Iran, the second largest OPEC producer, earns some $80 billion annually, some 80 percent of its foreign revenue. The European measures included an immediate embargo on new contracts for crude oil and petroleum products, but existing contracts with Iran were allowed to run until July.

In December, the United States enacted new sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and its ability to sell petroleum abroad, but it delayed implementing the sanctions for at least six months out of worry about sending the price of oil higher while the global economy struggles.

Ghasemi's comments indicated that Iran is hoping the West will become flexible following the nuclear talks with the five U.N. Security Council members and Germany in Istanbul last week. Both sides praised the meetings as positive and decided to continue the talks. A second round is planned in Baghdad later in May.

After Istanbul, Iranian officials urged the West to start taking steps to lift sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU.