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Iran state firm says it owes no oil to Italy

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(TEHRAN) - The state-owned National Iranian Oil Company said on Saturday that it does not owe some $2 billion in oil shipments as claimed by Italy, in remarks that could be aimed at undermining EU unity over banning oil purchases from Iran.

Italian oil firm ENI "does not have any specific financial claim on the National Iranian Oil Company," NIOC's director of international affairs, Mohsen Qamsari, was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

His comments ran contrary to statements by Italian officials that ENI was receiving oil shipments from NIOC in lieu of an estimated $2 billion (1.6 billion euros) in debts owed by the Iranian firm.

Italy is said to have signed up to the proposed EU ban on Iranian oil imports on condition that ENI's oil-for-debt shipments not be affected.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti set out that position last week, saying that "the embargo should not include imports that do not give Iran additional financial resources" -- implictly excluding the deliveries to ENI.

The European Union is expected to announce the new sanctions on Iran at a foreign ministers' meeting on January 30.

The package was only agreed after assurances were given to EU nations dependent on Iranian oil -- notably Italy, Greece and Spain -- that they would be able to get oil from alternative sources.

Italy's demand that it keep receiving Iranian oil owed under previous arrangements was also addressed.

The European Union is joining the United States in ratcheting up sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, which the West believes masks a drive to develop an atomic weapons capability.

Iran, which insists its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes, has said it is "not concerned" by the imminent EU embargo. It says it will easily be able to sell its oil to other markets.

The European Union is collectively the second-biggest destination for Iranian oil exports after China, taking in some 450,000 barrels per day.

Iranian oil accounted for 15 percent of Spain's total oil imports, 14 percent of Greece's and 13 percent of Italy's, according to EU statistics for 2010.

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