European Union governments agreed further sanctions against Iran's banking, shipping and industrial sectors yesterday, cranking up financial pressure on Tehran in the hope of drawing it into serious negotiations on its nuclear programme.
The decision by EU foreign ministers reflected mounting concerns over Iran's nuclear intentions and Israeli threats to attack Iranian atomic installations if a mix of sanctions and diplomacy proves fruitless in ushering in a peaceful solution.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she hoped that turning up the heat on the Islamic Republic would persuade it to make concessions, and that the negotiations could resume "very soon".
"I absolutely do think there is room for negotiations," said Ashton, who represents Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US in their on-and-off talks with Iran. "I hope we will be able to make progress very soon."
The new sanctions mark one of the toughest moves against Iran by Europe to date, and a significant change of policy for the 27-member bloc, which had focused on targeting specific individuals and companies with economic restrictions.
The EU has lagged the United States in imposing blanket industry bans because it wants to avoid punishing ordinary Iranian citizens while inflicting pain on the government in Tehran.
Iran maintains that its nuclear project has only peaceful energy purposes and has refused in three rounds of talks since April to scale back its uranium enrichment activity unless major economic sanctions are rescinded.
The United States and governments in Europe - doubting Iran's preparedness for anything more than dilatory "talks about talks" - are instead tightening the financial screws on Tehran, and fears of a descent into a new Middle East war are growing.