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.

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.

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.

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.

Last Saturday, President Obama signed a bill that would ban foreign financial institutions that deal with Iran’s Central Bank from operating in US financial markets.

That would make it impossible for Chinese refiners to pay Iran for the oil they buy unless their bankers are prepared to forgo doing business in the world’s largest financial market.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei lashed out at the new law Wednesday, saying that “China opposes the placing of one’s domestic law above international law and imposing unilateral sanctions on other countries.

“China maintains normal and transparent energy and economic cooperation with Iran, which does not violate UN Security Council resolutions and these interactions should not be affected,” he added.

China would be particularly affected by the US law, since not only does it rely on Iran for about 9 percent of its oil imports, but it sells Tehran about one-third of the gasoline Iran needs, since Iran does not have sufficient refining capacity itself.

A way around the embargo in Asia?

Japan and South Korea, among other big importers of Iranian oil in Asia, have also expressed reservations about the new US law.

“There are many questions to address with regard to such sanctions, including substitute suppliers of oil for Iran and whether it is possible to find ways to settle transactions other than through the Iranian Central Bank,” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters earlier this week.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is due to travel to Japan and China next week to discuss “continued coordination with international partners in the region to increase pressure on the government of Iran, including financial measures targeting the Central Bank of Iran,” a Treasury Department statement said Wednesday. He is not expected to receive a very warm welcome here.

Still, there is some hope for compromise. Chinese analysts note that the US law does allow Obama to issue waivers, exempting financial institutions from the law’s requirements if they come from countries important to US national security.

“I cannot predict what Obama will do” about Chinese financial institutions, says Professor Li, “but it will depend on how he regards relations with China.

“If the US uses domestic law to impose its will on international affairs,” Li adds, “that kind of method will be America’s problem, not China’s.”

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