European Union governments have reached a preliminary agreement to ban imports of Iranian crude to the EU but have yet to decide when such an embargo would be put in place, EU diplomats said on Wednesday.
The agreement, news of which sent crude oil prices higher, followed talks in the last days of December between EU envoys, diplomats said. Objections to the idea, notably from Greece, were dropped during the talks, they said.
"A lot of progress has been made," one EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The principle of an oil embargo is agreed. It is not being debated anymore."
A European ban on Iranian crude would be part of concerted Western action to put pressure on Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme, which many governments worry aims at producing an atom bomb. Tehran says its aims are peaceful only.
The United States imposed new sanctions on New Year's Eve to cut financial institutions that work with Iran's central bank off from the U.S. financial system, thus blocking off the main source of Tehran's payments for crude.
Europe started preparing a new push against Iran's financial and energy sectors in December, with the aim of agreeing sanctions by the end of January.
A ban on exporting oil-related technology to Iran and more measures against shipping of crude are also under discussion, diplomats said.
Diplomats said there was still a debate among European capitals over whether to enforce a crude ban immediately after it is agreed or to wait a few months. Some EU member states are concerned about the economic impact of an embargo at a time when Europe is struggling with massive debt problems.
Greece, in particular, has been hesitant but Greek government sources said on Tuesday that Athens would not break ranks with its EU partners on the issue.
Tensions between the West and Iran -- the second biggest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries -- have already pushed up oil prices.
On Wednesday, the price of a barrel of benchmark Brent crude rose more than a dollar from its previous close to a session peak of nearly $114, following the news that Europeans had agreed in principle to ban Iranian crude.
Iran supplies a total of around 450,000 barrels per day to EU member states, making the bloc collectively the second-largest market for Iranian oil after China.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has said that if there were a ban on Iranian imports, supplies could be bought from elsewhere, notably leading Opec member Saudi Arabia.
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