As UN nuclear inspectors arrive, Iran says 'questions will be answered'
The three-day visit could shape the direction of Western efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is only for peaceful purposes.
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The head of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) said late Saturday that the export embargo would hit European refiners, such as Italy's Eni, that are owed oil from Iran as part of long-standing buy-back contracts under which they take payment for past oilfield projects in crude.Skip to next paragraph
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"The decision must be made at high echelons of power and we at the NIOC will act as the executioner of the policies of the government," Ahmad Qalebani told the ISNA news agency.
"The European companies will have to abide by the provisions of the buyback contracts," he said. "If they act otherwise, they will be the parties to incur the relevant losses and will subject the repatriation of their capital to problems."
"Generally, the parties to incur damage from the EU's recent decision will be European companies with pending contracts with Iran."
Italy's Eni is owed $1.4-1.5 billion in oil for contracts it executed in Iran in 2000 and 2001 and has been assured by EU policymakers its buyback contracts will not be part of the European embargo, but the prospect of Iran acting first may put that into doubt.
Eni declined to comment Saturday.
The EU accounted for 25 percent of Iranian crude oil sales in the third quarter of 2011. However, analysts say the global oil market will not be overly disrupted if parliament votes for the bill that would turn off the oil tap for Europe.
"The Saudis have made it clear that they'll step in to fill the void," said Robert Smith, a consultant at Facts Global Energy. "It would not pose any serious threat to oil market stability. Meanwhile Asians, predominantly the Chinese and Indians, stand to benefit from more Iranian crude flowing east and at potential discounts."
Potentially more disruptive to the world oil market and global security is the risk of Iran's standoff with the West escalating into military conflict.
Iran has repeatedly said it could close the vital Strait of Hormuz shipping lane if sanctions succeed in preventing it from exporting crude, a move Washington said it would not tolerate.
The IAEA's visit may be an opportunity to defuse some of the tension. Director General Yukiya Amano has called on Iran to show a "constructive spirit" and Tehran has said it is willing to discuss "any issues" of interest to the UN agency, including the military-linked concerns.
But Western diplomats, who have often accused Iran of using such offers of dialogue as a stalling tactic while it presses ahead with its nuclear program, say they doubt Tehran will show the kind of concrete cooperation the IAEA wants.
They say Iran may offer limited concessions and transparency to try to ease intensifying international pressure, but that this is unlikely to amount to the full cooperation required.
The outcome could determine whether Iran will face further isolation or whether there are prospects for resuming wider talks between Tehran and the major powers on the nuclear row.
Salehi said Iran "soon" would write a letter to the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to discuss "a date and venue" for fresh nuclear talks.
"Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in this letter, which may be sent in the coming days, also may mention other issues as well," Salehi said, without elaborating.
The last round of talks in January 2011 between Jalili and Ashton, who represents major powers, failed over Iran's refusal to halt its sensitive nuclear work.
"The talks will be successful as the other party seems interested in finding a way out of this deadlock," Salehi said.
* (Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari, Robin Pomeroy and Hossein Jaseb in Tehran, Svetlana Kovalyova in Milan and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Parisa Hafezi and Robin Pomeroy; Editing by William Maclean)