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Mon 23 Jun 2008 04:45 PM

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EU agrees sanctions against Iran

UPDATE 1: Bloc bans country's largest bank, Bank Melli, and adds to visa-ban and asset-freeze lists.

EU nations on Monday agreed new sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme, notably banning the country's largest bank, Bank Melli, from operating in Europe.

The measures, which will stop the operations of the bank at its European offices in London, Hamburg and Paris, were approved during a meeting of EU agriculture and fisheries ministers in Luxembourg.

The move, adopted without discussion by the EU ministers, also adds another 20 individuals and 15 organisations to the EU's visa-ban and assets-freeze lists.

European officials did not give details on Monday of those added to the list, but said they were officials and experts identified as having connections with Iran's nuclear and weapons programmes.

No Iranian political leaders was hit by the sanctions, because "we want to have a dialogue", one diplomat said.

The EU move, running alongside a string of UN sanctions against Iran adopted since 2006, aims at persuading Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, which the international community fears are part of a nuclear weapons building programme.

Tehran insists it wants atomic energy only for a growing population whose fossil fuels will eventually run out.

The UN sanctions include a clause calling for "vigilance" by member states over the movement in their territories of people directly associated with or supporting Iran's nuclear activities.

Washington has been waiting for Europe to take such measures for months, and the matter became a theme of US President George W. Bush's recent European tour.

The 27 EU member states have been working out the details since May but the measures were delayed until after a trip to Iran earlier this month by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Solana visited Tehran on June 14 to present a cooperation offer to Iran on behalf of the six major countries involved in the dossier - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the US.

The proposal, which offers Iran technological incentives in exchange for it suspending the sensitive process of uranium enrichment, has been made public, as has a letter from the six world powers dealing with the nuclear crisis.

Solana said Friday that he had still received no response from the Iranian side on the offer, which is conditional on Tehran suspending its uranium enrichment activities.

Top Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the idea of Iran suspending enrichment - repeatedly rejected by the government - was not part of the discussions with Solana.

However he added Sunday that Iran was examining a "timetable" presented by world powers for starting talks on a package aimed at ending the five-year standoff over its nuclear programme.

While the opening of full negotiations on cooperation is conditional upon Iran's suspension of all enrichment activities, Solana proposed a period of preliminary talks during which Tehran would agree not to set up any new centrifuges and the national powers agree not to ratchet up their existing sanctions.