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EU's Iran oil ban: Will China help Tehran?

While China may not like the EU move toward an Iran oil ban, it may not rush to help Iran by buying more of its oil, say analysts.

By Staff writer / January 5, 2012

A driver fills containers at the back of his truck with diesel fuel at a gas station in Suining, Sichuan province, China, December 21, 2011.

Reuters

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Beijing

If Iran is hoping that China will buy more of its oil to make up the exports it is slated to lose because of a European embargo on Tehran’s crude it will be disappointed, Chinese analysts here predict.

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Beijing “will not take the risk for Iran’s benefit” of angering the United States and becoming too dependent on one source of oil, says Ma Xiaolin, a commentator on Middle East affairs and head of the Beijing-based BLSHE economic consultancy.

The European Union agreed in principle on Wednesday to ban oil imports from Iran, ratcheting up Western efforts to pressure Tehran into negotiating an end to its alleged nuclear-bomb program.

Iran denies it has such a program, and Iranian Vice President Mohammed-Reza Rahimi recently threatened that Iran would block shipping in the Straits of Hormuz if sanctions were imposed on its oil exports.

Iranian officials also say they have alternatives in place should the threatened EU embargo actually be enforced. “We could very easily replace those customers” by selling more oil to China, other Asian nations, and Africa, S.M. Qamsari, head of the international department of the National Iranian Oil Company, told Reuters news agency.

Experts here are dubious about that, however. “I don’t believe China would buy more from Iran in the event of a European embargo,” says Li Guofu, an Iran expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-supported think tank here. “China has a number of sources of oil, and regular contracts.”

In a sign that Beijing bases its crude purchases on commercial, rather than political, grounds, China’s imports of Iranian oil this month are expected to fall dramatically, traders say, as it haggles over the terms of its 2012 contracts with Tehran, which are due to be renegotiated by the end of January.

China is Iran’s best international oil customer, taking 22 percent of its exports during the first half of last year, according to the US Energy Information Administration. EU countries bought about 18 percent in 2010.

Playing fair?

Though China is unlikely to help Iran off the hook of the threatened EU embargo, it is strongly opposed to the latest US effort to put pressure on Iran.

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