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U.S. says supports Europe proposal on Iran oil

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States supports a European proposal to ban purchases of Iranian crude and believes Tehran's oil revenues can be choked off without disrupting global oil markets, a Treasury official said on Wednesday.

The official, who requested anonymity, said a well-timed, phased-in effort to curtail purchases of Iranian crude could avoid market disruptions, and noted that new U.S. sanctions legislation envisions a phased-in approach.

"The United States is interested in maintaining the stability of global oil markets, a goal shared by other oil producing and consuming nations," the official said.

European Union governments have reached a preliminary agreement to ban imports of Iranian crude but have yet to decide when an embargo would be put in place, EU diplomats said on Wednesday. The news pushed up oil prices.

The move comes amid rising tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions, with Western governments warning that Tehran was moving to develop atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian use.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday signed legislation that provides for new U.S. sanctions against financial institutions that deal directly with Iran's central bank, the main conduit for the country's oil revenues.

The Treasury official said the United States was encouraging countries to wind down business between private banks and the Iranian central bank as quickly possible.

The official said the best way to avoid U.S. sanctions would be for countries to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil and seek supplies elsewhere.

"We are urging countries to take these steps in as orderly a manner as possible," the official said.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will visit China and Japan next week to discuss the coordination of Iran sanctions and the health of the global economy.

China, the No. 1 customer for Iran's oil, on Wednesday restated its opposition to the U.S.-led push for unilateral sanctions on Iran.

(Reporting By Timothy Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

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