(Updates with Iranian ships in Mediterranean in sixth paragraph, letter to EU in seventh.)
Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for “tight, ratcheted up” sanctions against Iran to force the country to curb its nuclear ambitions, and said the political process had further to go before a military strike.
“We’re still in the sanctions stage and we expect them to become even more tight,” Barak said at a press conference today in Tokyo at the end of a four-day visit. “I think there is consensus in most capitals of the world that Iran should not be allowed to turn into a nuclear military power.”
Action against Iran’s nuclear facilities must be considered before the country achieves “the same kind of immunity as Kim Jong Il,” Barak said, referring to the deceased North Korean leader who defied international pressure to abandon a nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. and European Union have stepped up sanctions against Iran’s oil industry and financial system, saying the measures are necessary to force concessions from Iran over its nuclear program. Iran says its enrichment of uranium is for civilian use while Israel and its Western allies warn that it could be used to make weapons.
The standoff has raised tensions in a region that holds more than half of the world’s oil reserves. Iranian officials have threatened to cut off the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of crude trade passes.
An Iranian destroyer and supply ship docked in the Syrian port of Tartus yesterday to train Syria’s navy, after passing through the Suez Canal, Iran’s state-run Press TV reported today. It was only the second time Iranian ships entered the Mediterranean since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Iran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is being urged to quit by the U.S. and allies after an 11-month crackdown on protests.
Iran wants direct talks on its nuclear program at the “earliest possibility,” the country’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. Ashton and Secretary State Hillary Clinton, who met in Washington yesterday, welcomed the initiative.
The EU is due to ban Iranian oil imports starting in July. Swift, the global bank-transfer service, yesterday said it is prepared to impose sanctions against Iranian financial institutions once the EU sets out implementation rules.
Barak said Iran should be hit with “sanctions against the central bank and removing its access to international clearing systems.” Countries can’t hide behind the threat of losing oil from Iran in deciding whether to take action, because Saudi Arabia is ready to increase production and exports from Iraq are also increasing, he said.
Japan is seeking an exemption from a U.S. law that would punish its banks unless it cuts Iranian oil imports, while saying it has reduced Iranian crude purchases by 40 percent in the past five years and will continue to do so.
Iran this week said it had installed 3,000 “new- generation” domestically made centrifuges at its main nuclear research reactor in Tehran, describing it as a “major” breakthrough. The U.S. downplayed the news, with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland calling it “hyped” in order to boost nationalism.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government blames Iran for this week’s car bombings of Israeli diplomatic vehicles in New Delhi and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Two men with Iranian passports were also detained in Bangkok after explosions.
--With assistance from John Brinsley in Tokyo, Jonathan Tirone in Vienna, and Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut. Editors: Ben Richardson, Ben Holland, Leon Mangasarian.
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