European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton gives a press conference following a Foreign Affairs Council at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. The EU slapped an embargo on Iranian oil in tough new sanctions aimed at blocking funds for Tehran's suspect nuclear drive and reviving stalled talks, but Iran branded the move unfair. © Georges Gobet - AFP
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton
Claire Rosemberg, AFP
Last updated: January 25, 2012

EU targets Iran oil as West rounds on nuclear drive

Iran's disputed nuclear drive played a major role in talks between Catherine Ashton and senior Israeli officials Tuesday after the EU foreign policy chief arrived in the region for a three-day visit.

The European Union's top diplomat landed in Israel a day after the 27-nation bloc imposed an unprecedented oil embargo on Iran, amid growing fears the Islamic Republic is inching towards a nuclear arsenal.

"The European Union stands together in sending that clear message to the government of Iran: that we wish to go back to negotiations, to invite them to pick up the issues which were left on the table in Istanbul a year ago," she said, referring to talks with world powers that collapsed in January 2011.

Monday's decision was welcomed by Israel as "a step in the right direction," but Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak urged the bloc to go even further.

"We think these decisions are heading in the right direction but it is very important to tighten them even more and to add steps against the central bank and other measures," he said on meeting Ashton in Tel Aviv.

Israeli President Shimon Peres also hailed the European move to tighten sanctions on Iran, telling a joint press conference in Jerusalem that he hoped it would "really bear fruit."

"It was a courageous move and a right one. It is a long time since Europe took such a clear position under very complicated circumstances," he said.

Although Iran was expected to be a central focus of the talks with the Israelis, Ashton said the main aim of her trip was to focus on reviving another set of stalled negotiations -- between Israel and the Palestinians.

Since January 3, negotiators from the two sides have been holding a series of informal face-to-face discussions in Amman a bid to seek ways of reviving direct peace talks.

But there has been little tangible progress, and the Palestinians have threatened to call a halt to such meetings by Thursday, prompting a flurry of diplomatic activity to keep the sides talking.

"The fact that negotiators are talking to each other face-to-face is encouraging," Ashton said in a statement issued before her arrival.

"I'll be looking for positive signs from both sides that they are prepared to turn this progress into real gestures and negotiations," she said, indicating she would make "every effort to push the peace talks and encourage the parties in the path towards a negotiated solution."

The negotiators were to hold a fifth meeting in Amman on Tuesday evening, a senior Palestinian source told AFP.

During the evening, Ashton was to dine with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah before returning to Jerusalem for talks with Quartet representative Tony Blair.

She was expected to spend most of Wednesday in Gaza, followed by talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Also on Wednesday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to hold talks in Amman with King Abdullah II, with a meeting with Ashton set for Thursday lunch time.

Thursday marks the deadline set by the Middle East peace Quartet for receiving concrete proposals from both sides on borders and security. Quartet diplomats had on October 26 given the parties three months to hand over their propositions.

The Palestinians say they have presented their proposals and accuse Israel of not reciprocating.

They say they will not continue talks after Thursday unless Israel freezes settlement construction and agrees to base any future talks on the lines which existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

But Netanyahu has said Israel began counting the Quartet's three-month deadline from the start of the Amman talks on January 3.

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