EU throws out Iran sanctions, announces new talks over nuclear program

European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton talks at Informal Meeting of EU Ministers for Foreign Affairs at the National Museum Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sept. 6, 2013. AP

BRUSSELS A top European Union court on Friday threw out sanctions imposed on several Iranian businesses for their alleged ties to the country's disputed nuclear program, as the EU's top diplomat announced a meeting with Tehran's new negotiator in hopes of breaking a stalemate over what the West says is Iran's quest for atomic weapons.

In a setback for Western efforts to tighten sanctions, the EU's General Court in Luxembourg ruled there wasn't sufficient evidence to justify the sanctions imposed by the 28-nation bloc on eight Iranian banks and companies.

The court said the sanctions will stay in place for at least two months pending any appeal. They would also remain in place until a final verdict if EU governments decide to appeal the ruling.

The EU is one of Iran's most important trading partners. Since 2010, however, the bloc has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on top of existing U.N. sanctions, targeting Iranian citizens and companies believed to be linked to the country's nuclear program. The EU then significantly escalated the nuclear-related sanctions by 2012 to include an oil-import embargo.

Despite the West's claims, Tehran insists its nuclear program serves only civilian purposes, such as energy production and medical research. Years of negotiations between the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany with Iran have failed to make much headway.

Still, the ruling came at a time of thaw in the protracted process: Iran's new president Hasan Rouhani confirmed Thursday that Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — a Western-educated diplomat — will lead nuclear talks with world powers, marking a shift away from the often more hawkish security officials who have previously set the negotiation strategy.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Friday at a meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, that she called Zarif and agreed to meet him later this month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

"I stand ready with my colleagues to get the talks moving," she said. Ashton added she hopes "that when we meet in New York we will have the opportunity to set dates (for the formal talks) there."

While it is assumed that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will have the last word on the nuclear issue, Rouhani was elected on the promise of getting rid of the international sanctions that are crippling Iran's economy. Analysts view the appointment of Zarif to lead the nuclear negotiations — instead of the Supreme National Security Council — as a sign that the new administration might be more willing to compromise with the West.

Meanwhile, the EU court voided the freezing of assets held in the EU by Post Bank Iran, Iran Insurance Company, Good Luck Shipping and Export Development Bank of Iran. It found that the bloc's governments couldn't "properly establish that they had provided support for nuclear proliferation."

The Court has also annulled the sanctions imposed on Bank Refah Kargaran, Persia International Bank, a businessman identified only as Mr. Bateni and Iranian Offshore Engineering & Construction Co., citing insufficient evidence.

However, the court dismissed a similar law suit brought forward by the country's important Bank Melli Iran because the institute continued to pay scholarships for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran after the latter was put on a United Nations Security Council sanctions list. It also upheld sanctions against the Germany-based EIB, or European-Iranian trade bank, leaving its funds frozen.

Comments