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US to ease Iranian bans but keep lid on oil
From AFP in correspondents in Tehran and Washington
THE US is expected to announce this week an easing of economic sanctions against Iran, including ending a ban on importing carpets, caviar and pistachio nuts from the Islamic republic, officials in Washington said yesterday.
The announcement is likely to come tomorrow when a senior US official, possibly Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, addresses a conference on Iran's new parliament, they said. The officials would not confirm a report in USA Today newspaper that an announcement would be made but said the conference at a Washington hotel would provide a suitable opportunity to discuss sanctions.
But Iranian officials said the country's top exports - petroleum and related products - would be unaffected by the easing, after the White House announced on Monday it was renewing 1995 sanctions on the Iranian oil and gas sectors.
The continued sanctions were denounced by Tehran, which yesterday pressed on with efforts to expand petroleum trade with its central Asian neighbours. Iran is presenting itself as the best possible transport route for central Asian crude. Iran's official IRNA agency reported that Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi met his Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Guliyev, in Tehran yesterday.
At the same time, Oil Minister Bijan Namdar-Zangheneh arrived for talks in Turkmenistan on joint development of the Caspian Sea oil resources.
IRNA also reported that senior Oil Ministry official Hussein Kazempur Ardebili had signed a deal with a Sino-European consortium to increase the capacity of the 336km Neka-Rey pipeline. The route carries crude oil from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to the Tehran and Tabriz oil refineries.
Tehran has for three years called on neighbouring countries to reach a legal agreement on how to share the Caspian Sea's vast energy resources.
Current swap agreements between Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan provide for the use of central Asian crude in northern Iran, in exchange for the same quantity of Persian Gulf crude.
But a number of its northern neighbours have stolen several years' march on Iran - Azerbaijan in particular has already signed deals with foreign partners.
The Caspian Sea states - Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan - are fierce rivals in the race to exploit the region's hydrocarbon deposits, which are thought to be the third-largest in the world after the Persian Gulf and Siberia.
Adding to Iran's troubles is the continuing opposition of the US to using Iran as a transit country for the region's oil or gas pipelines.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan last week reached agreement on a strategic $US2 billion (3.25 billion) gas pipeline to Turkey, heavily backed by Washington, which wants to curb the influence of Russia and Iran in the region.
The trans-Caspian pipeline is a main goal of US strategy in the region, alongside another major pipeline to carry Azeri oil via Georgia to Turkey and Western markets.
Despite the continued sanctions, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart and a senior State Department official said Washington was still looking at ways to encourage dialogue with Iran, particularly following the overwhelming victory by reformers in last month's parliamentary elections there.
A ban on importing carpets, caviar and pistachio nuts should never have been allowed. Whatever were you Yanks thinking? Eh? When are you mob going to get the prioroties right? Importing carpets, caviar and pistachio nuts lovers want to know!
Regards from OZ
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 15, 2000