US presses China, Japan, South Korea to trim Iran oil imports


SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy
F. Geithner faces a stiff challenge this week as he tries to persuade
China, Japan and South Korea to reduce their dependency on Iranian oil
and natural gas.

The Obama administration is pressing those countries
to help squeeze Iran financially, hoping to compel the Middle Eastern
nation to abandon what Washington and allies say is a plan to develop
nuclear weapons. China has so far rebuffed the overtures, arguing there
should be no link between trade with Iran and its nuclear program. Iran
insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.

“Sanctioning is not the correct approach to easing tensions,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

The U.S. request poses a dilemma for Japan and South
Korea, both close allies of Washington but both heavily dependent on
imported energy.

Japan is under particular pressure because of the
diminished capacity of its power industry after the earthquake and
tsunami last March that snuffed out the Fukushima nuclear plant. The
country is the world’s largest importer of liquid natural gas and
third-largest net importer of oil, with 9 percent of that oil coming
from Iran.

Adhering to a new round of U.S. sanctions on Iran
would imperil that crucial energy source at a time when Japan’s nuclear
industry is in retreat.

Tokyo has acquiesced to previous U.S. pressure to
limit its dealings with the Iranian energy sector. With almost no
domestic fossil fuel production, Japan aggressively pursues overseas
joint oil and gas ventures, and its state-owned exploration company,
Impex, had planned to be a major developer of Iran’s Azadegan natural
gas field.

But facing the prospect of being denied access to U.S. financial institutions, Impex abandoned its stake in the project in 2010.

Last week, South Korean officials said they would ask
Washington for an exemption from the embargo to lessen the “negative
impacts” of the sanctions. South Korea imports 97 percent of its oil and
depends on Iran for up to 10 percent of its supplies.

In a meeting in Seoul last month, Robert Einhorn,
senior U.S. State Department adviser for nonproliferation and arms
control, continued to pressure officials. “Iran is violating
international obligations and norms. It is becoming a pariah state,” he
told reporters.

The South Korean press reported Sunday that Seoul officials were considering reducing imports of Iranian oil to 2010 levels.

Editorials in Japan’s major newspapers warn that the
nation will be hurt financially by the sanctions and should seek a
compromise with U.S. officials.

“We should take necessary measures to lower damage
from an oil embargo for our country,” said Yukio Edano, minister of
economy, trade and industry.

Japan is in a singularly difficult position because
it is also a leading international voice against nuclear weapons
proliferation. The nation remains scarred by its experience as the only
target of an atomic attack, and takes a particularly hard line against
North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Resisting the American-led
campaign against the specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb is thus
politically awkward for Tokyo.

“There are some thorny issues between the U.S. and
Japan, but since we’re so dependent on the U.S. forces for our national
defense, I don’t think we have any other choice but to follow the lead
of Washington,” one Japanese official told reporters.


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