EU agrees in principle on Iranian oil ban; U.S. official to visit China to discuss Iran

Timothy Geithner, current U.S. secretary of the Treasury, will travel to China and Japan next week to discuss tougher sanctions against Iran. (File Photo)

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.

Diplomats said that EU envoys held talks on the issue in the last days of December and that any objections to the idea, notably from Greece, were dropped.

“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.”

The United States on Wednesday welcomed the EU agreement and said it was very good news.

“These are the kinds of steps that we would like to see not just from our close allies and partners in places like Europe but from countries around the world,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

“We do believe that this is consistent with tightening the noose on Iran economically,” she said.

U.S. official visit to China

Meanwhile, Timothy Geithner, current U.S. secretary of the Treasury, will travel to China and Japan next week to discuss tougher sanctions against Iran, the U.S. Treasury Department said Wednesday, hours after China said it opposed unilateral U.S. measures.

In a statement, the Treasury Department said Geithner would visit the two Asian economic powers in a January 10-12 trip.

In China he will meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice President Xi Jinping. In Japan he will meet Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Geithner will discuss “discuss the state of the global economy, policies to strengthen global growth and other economic issues of mutual importance,” the statement said.

“Secretary Geithner will also discuss our continued coordination with international partners in the region to increase pressure on the Government of Iran, including financial measures targeting the Central Bank of Iran.”

Earlier on Wednesday China said it opposed “unilateral” sanctions against Iran, after U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law new measures targeting the Islamic Republic's central bank.

Washington’s move came after the United States, Britain and Canada said in November they were slapping additional sanctions on Iran, citing evidence that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Tehran denies the allegations, saying its nuclear program is exclusively for medical and power generation purposes, and China has repeatedly said sanctions will not resolve the issue.

“China opposes placing one’s domestic law above international law and imposing unilateral sanctions against other countries,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei when asked about U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Geithner’s visit will also come days after his department rapped China and Japan for allegedly unfair currency interventions.

In the dying days of 2011 the Treasury Department issued a report warning China its yuan is still significantly undervalued.

But it refrained from saying Beijing manipulates the currency ̶ which could lead to retaliatory action by Congress.

“The real exchange rate of the renminbi is persistently misaligned and remains substantially undervalued, though the degree of this undervaluation appears to have declined significantly,” the Treasury said in a semi-annual report to Congress.

The report also criticized Japan’s efforts to keep the yen from appreciating amid global foreign exchange market turmoil.

Iran’s currency

Meanwhile, Iran’s currency market was in turmoil Wednesday as the central bank imposed draconian measures to try to shore up its beleaguered rial in the face of existing and looming Western sanctions.

The bank was imposing a fixed low rate of 14,000 rials to the dollar on the open market, traders said.

Some had shuttered their shops in the center of Tehran, refusing to make transactions at that artificial level.

The central bank also halved the amount of dollars Iranians flying abroad could buy at a slightly lower preferential rate, to $1,000 instead of the $2,000 previously allowed, according to an official statement relayed by media.

The measures were applied after the rial lost 12 percent Monday, days after the United States enacted new sanctions against Iran's central bank.

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