BRUSSELS, Belgium Britain's drive for tighter EU sanctions against Iran's oil and gas sector slowed Thursday as European diplomats facing consumer protests over soaring fuel prices said any new measures in that area were unlikely for months.
The European Union hesitancy comes despite growing sentiment among many of the bloc's individual nations that tougher steps are needed to keep Iran from turning its nuclear activities into weapons.
Still, the diplomatic assessment represents a setback to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who assured President Bush this week that the EU would soon start a "new phase of sanctions on oil and gas."
The problem the Europeans face is what steps to take and when. Hitting Iran's oil and gas sector could further push up energy prices, which have prompted disruptive protests around Europe by fishermen, truckers and farmers in recent weeks.
"There are no good options with regard to sanctions on oil and gas in Iran," said Mark Thomas of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar. "With oil prices as they are it's not even an option."
Diplomats at the two-day summit said the EU was considering energy sanctions if Iran rejects the latest international offer of economic incentives in return for an end to its uranium enrichment program. However, they said discussions were at a very early stage.
However, they said those discussions were still at a very early stage and such measures could be several months away. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Iran, meanwhile, was sending mixed signals.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory Thursday over efforts by the United States and its allies to stifle its nuclear ambitions. "Bullying powers applied all their power, but they could not break the will of the Iranian nation," state radio quoted him as saying.
However, the Web site of the state broadcaster quoted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as saying that Iran was considering the package and would answer at a convenient time.
Iranian officials have yet to give a formal reply to the offer, presented last week by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on behalf of Russia, China, the United States, France, Germany and Britain.
"We hope there will be an answer soon," Solana said Thursday.
EU diplomats did not formally discuss what to do about Iran at Thursday's meetings, said Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach.
"We're now waiting for what the Iranians will say," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. "Solana has delivered them a letter and the Iranians, I think, will give it a serious consideration," he said, adding that there was "no rush."
The French who have taken an increasingly stern line on Iran in recent months also remained reticent about a new package.
"We are waiting" for the Iranian response, said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani. She would not discuss a possible timeline for a new EU decision.
The incentives package holds out the prospect of assistance for peaceful nuclear energy and other economic cooperation in return for halting enrichment, which the West says could be used to make atomic weapons.
The EU is expected to step up sanctions in another sector, perhaps as soon as next week, by freezing the assets of Iran's biggest bank. That did not happen Monday, as Brown had suggested, because at least several more days of technical work are needed to ensure a proposal to freeze assets of Iran's Bank Melli complies with U.N. and European rules, EU diplomats said.
Imposing sanctions on the energy sector would be more complicated.
"The impact would be immediate and it would be huge," warned Frank A. Verrastro, director and of the Energy and National Security Program Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. In a telephone interview he warned that Iran would likely retaliate to sanctions by cutting production and pushing prices up yet higher.
"There is not enough spare capacity in the world to cover the loss of Iran," Verrastro said. "The markets are bad enough. If you lost a major producer, a big exporter, there is no replacement."
The EU is Iran's biggest trading partner, with two-way trade totaling $39 billion in 2006. Iran supplies nearly 4 percent of EU energy imports, according to latest figures from the bloc's trade department.
Washington has frequently complained that European governments should take a tougher line on Iran, and Brown's comments during Bush's visit to London on Monday raised US hopes that wider sanctions were imminent. They also upset some EU diplomats who said he'd jumped the gun, and drew ridicule from the Conservative opposition in London which accused him of committing a blunder.
Some fear that the alternative to sanctions would be U.S. military strikes against Iran's nuclear installations which Europeans fear would plunge the region into chaos.
Iran insists its enrichment activities are for peaceful purposes to develop nuclear power, not a bomb.
Associated Press writers Paul Ames and Constant Brand in Brussels contributed to this report.