Update (9:50 a.m. EST): Iran's oil ministry denied the state media report that the country was going to halt oil sales to Europe, as did Italy's foreign minister. "We deny this report ... If such a decision is made, it will be announced by Iran's Supreme National Security Council," a spokesman for the oil ministry told Reuters. And in Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said, "I have been informed by our ambassador in Tehran that the report isn't true," Dow Jones reports.
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Original: Iran is making two bold moves today in its ongoing showdown with the West, by announcing that it will load home-made nuclear fuel rods into a research reactor, and at the same time, that it will cut oil exports to six big European countries.
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The fuel issue is a major signal to Americans and the United Nations that the country continues to make advances in its nuclear program despite economic pressure, sanctions, and attacks on its scientists and infrastructure. In the past, Tehran has had to buy fuel rods from other nations like Russia or through trade deals with other Western countries, but the ability to produce its own fuel is both a sign of technological sophistication and its own independence. By clearing a major hurdle for any nation looking to produce its own nuclear power, peaceful or otherwise, (or at least pretending they have) Iran's leadership is signaling that continued sanctions won't stop them on their quest for nuclear energy.
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The oil decision, made in response to a European Union move to boycott new oil deals with Iran, is also a signal of its independence. But it is also a retaliation. European sales make up 18 percent of Iran's oil exports, but a cut in the existing supply could create a spike in prices, crippling the already fragile economies of Europe, and by extension, the United States. Iran's announcement, delivered via state TV, did not name the six countries, but there are reports that the ambassadors of the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal were summoned this morning to be informed of the decision. Some of those envoys may have already been called home. While not as drastic a move as their threatened closing of the Strait of Hormuz, the implication from the Iranians is that Europe needs their oil more than Iran needs Europe's money. Crude oil prices have already jumped to a six-month high following the news.
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Iran says they have also delivered a letter to the EU claiming that it is ready to negotiate about its nuclear program, thought it's doubtful, particularly given today's other events, that talks will start soon or have any impact on the stalemate.