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EU poised to agree ban on Iranian gas imports-sources

By Justyna Pawlak and Barbara Lewis

BRUSSELS, Oct 4 (Reuters) - The European Union is poised to ban imports of Iranian gas into Europe as part of its efforts to ratchet up pressure on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme, diplomats said on Thursday.

Diplomats from EU member states have started preparing a package of sanctions against Iran with a goal of formally adopting them at a meeting of foreign ministers on Oct. 15 in Luxembourg.

Late on Wednesday, they reached a preliminary deal to ban gas imports, the first measure to win approval in the package, which also consists of various finance and energy-related proposals, three EU diplomats said.

"There is agreement on gas," one of the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The big states back it, Germany, Britain, France," another one said.

The moves come as European governments and the United States are searching for new ways to pressure Tehran into scaling back its nuclear work after diplomacy foundered earlier this year. Tehran denies its work has any military intentions.

But tensions over the issue are on the rise, with Israel - widely thought to be the only power in the Middle East with nuclear weapons - threatening to strike Iranian uranium enrichment installations.

The United States, since 1995, has banned U.S. firms from investing in Iranian oil and gas and from trading with Iran.

The European Union has been much slower to ban Iranian energy. It imposed an embargo on Iranian oil this year, after banning the creation of joint ventures with enterprises in Iran engaged in the oil and natural gas industries in 2010.

Existing sanctions cover investment in Iranian gas, but do not specifically outlaw imports, which are insignificant In terms of volume, but symbolic.

The EU sources said Iranian crude reaches Europe via Turkey, which blends it with Azeri gas and ships it on.

They said there was a risk of the new measure alienating Turkey, which has a pivotal role to play in its plans to diversify gas supplies away from dominant supplier Russia, but it was a risk worth taking.

In any case, one of the sources said Turkey was likely to ignore the ban.

"There are two possibilities. Either Turkey goes with it or Turkey maintains imports silently," the source said.

Turkey is renowned for optimising its strategic position by playing off all its potential partners.

It controls a huge chunk of a planned new export route for shipping Azeri gas, which would link up with one of two short-listed pipelines to complete the journey into the EU.

A protracted territorial dispute between current EU president Cyprus and Turkey has soured ties between Turkey and the European Union, but one of the sources said they could probably withstand a ban on Iranian gas.

"Relations between Turkey and Europe are not very good, but they're not very bad," he said.

(Editing by James Jukwey)

((Barbara.hm.Lewis@thomsonreuters.com)(+32 2 287 68 43)(Reuters Messaging: barbara.hm.lewis.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: EU IRAN/SANCTIONS GAS