France's foreign ministry first suggested and then clarified a policy to impose a unilateral ban on imports of oil from Iran, making clear on Thursday it would only act over Tehran's nuclear programme in coordination with European Union partners.
In an initial statement posted on the ministry website, in response to a Reuters question, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said:
The interruption of Iranian oil purchases is among the measures proposed by France to its partners. We will apply this at a national level.
Another spokesman later called the wording ambiguous, adding: The decision at a national level will be in coordination with our European partners.
Nevertheless the French remarks led to a wave of comment across Europe showing determination to toughen sanctions -- a drive that is likely to be central to an EU foreign ministers' meeting on December 1.
We are discussing wide-ranging sanctions (on) Iran with partners in the EU, a UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said, adding Britain expects to announce sanctions on further Iranian entities and individuals.
The EU energy commissioner said a ban on Iranian oil imports would not be a problem for the European Union's energy security.
This is not a problem. It can be substituted by OPEC and others. EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said.
While most of Iran's oil goes to Asia, it still supplies significant volumes to Europe via the Suez Canal.
U.S. government data shows EU countries accounted for 18 pct of Iranian oil purchases in the first half of 2011 or 450,000 bpd. Italy was the leading buyer with 180,000 bpd, Spain took 137,000 bpd and France 20,000 bpd.
The director of Italy's national oil industry body said Italian sanctions on imports of Iranian crude were inevitable.
The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced new sanctions on Iran's energy and financial sectors in steps aimed at raising pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear work, which is internationally thought to have a weapons dimension. Iran says it is aimed at peaceful atomic energy.
France has been pushing hard to convince allies to also impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports and central bank, despite concerns among other Western governments that such moves could hurt the world economy as well as Tehran.
France bought more Iranian oil in the first half of the year to make up for disruption from Libya.
French oil industry body UFIP said on Thursday France would easily make up for an Iranian crude import shortfall.
Valero's initial statement was in response to a Reuters question whether the government would force French oil major Total to stop its crude shipping business with Iran.
Shares in Total, France's biggest oil company, were down 1.6 percent at 34.75 euros by 10:36 a.m. British time after accelerating losses to 2 percent in the wake of the ministry's first statement. The European energy sector was down 1.1 percent at the time.
(Reporting By John Irish, Marie Maitre and Muriel Boselli; Editing by Anthony Barker, Richard Mably)