EU set to re-impose sanctions on more Iranian shipping companies

By Jonathan Saul LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union is set to put 40 Iranian shipping firms back on a list of sanctioned groups in a blow to the Islamic Republic's transport sector which has sought an easing of trade restrictions, letters sent from the EU showed. The move, which comes at a critical time in international talks on Iran's nuclear programme, is part of the EU's response to a series of court victories by Iranian companies that have overturned EU sanctions against them. In February, the bloc re-imposed sanctions on Iran's biggest oil tanker firm NITC. The 40 companies, including Hamburg-based Ocean Capital Administration GmbH, were previously placed on the EU's sanctions list because the EU said they were controlled or otherwise linked to top national carrier the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which had previously been blacklisted. In January, the bloc's second highest court annulled EU sanctions on the 40 shipping companies and an Iranian bank, which had been hit with asset freezes as part of pressure on Tehran. The General Court struck down the sanctions, saying the EU had not given valid reasons for saying that IRISL was supporting nuclear proliferation. In letters dated March 12 and seen by Reuters, that were sent by the European Council to the shipping firms' lawyer Maryam Taher, the Council said the reasons for the intended re-listings included the companies being owned or controlled by IRISL or for providing training, spare parts and services to IRISL or IRISL employees. "Consequently, the Council intends to designate your clients again," the letters said. An EU diplomat told Reuters on Tuesday: "The (EU) Council looks at every judgement carefully and explores all choices available. A discussion on the cases you mention ... will be held in the working party this week." Taher said the decision to re-list the companies was "purely politically motivated and not based on any proper evidence" that the entities were linked with nuclear proliferation or Iran's government. "The whole purpose of the EU sanctions is to leverage pressure on the Iranian government to come to an agreement in relation to nuclear proliferation," she said. World powers are trying to reach a framework deal with Tehran by the end of the month that would restrict the most sensitive aspects of Iran's atomic programme in return for an easing of international sanctions, which have halved the country's oil exports to just over 1 million barrels per day since 2012 and hammered its economy. (Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels, editing by David Evans)