WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Thursday cleared China and Singapore from possible U.S. economic penalties, citing their sharp cuts in imports of Iranian oil, as an American deadline arrived for banks to stop processing petroleum transactions with Tehran.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commended the two Asian countries for "significantly" reducing the oil purchases and she announced a six-month exception for them to continue buying Iranian crude at lower levels. Eighteen other governments have received similar waivers.
The U.S. penalties are intended to pressure Iran to prove it is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran's oil exports are down about 40 percent, while its currency has fallen sharply. European penalties coming into effect next week will further raise the economic pressure.
The Islamic republic insists its nuclear program is designed solely for peaceful energy and research purposes. The United States and many other countries are unconvinced. A breakthrough has proved elusive in three rounds of negotiations since April involving Iran and the leading world powers.
Technical talks resume in Turkey next week, but looming over the entire process is a possible military response from the U.S. or Israel if a compromise isn't reached soon. In the meantime, Washington and its partners are targeting the oil sector to dry up a main source of revenue for the Iranian government.
"A total of 20 world economies have now qualified for such an exception," Clinton said in a statement. "Their cumulative actions are a clear demonstration to Iran's government that Iran's continued violation of its international nuclear obligations carries an enormous economic cost."
She said Iranian crude exports have dropped to 1.5 million barrels a day, from 2.5 million barrels last year, which comes out to almost $32 billion in revenue lost over a whole year. With the European Union deciding to cut off any oil imports as of Sunday, "Iran's leaders will understand even more fully the urgency of the choice they face and the unity of the international community," Clinton said.
Thursday's action now makes all of Iran's biggest oil purchasers free from the threat of seeing their banks cut off from the American financial system. The waiver is good for 180 days and is renewable. Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, India, Malaysia, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Turkey had been exempted.
Speaking earlier Thursday in Latvia, Clinton told reporters that China and Singapore share America's goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and understood the need for sanctions. U.S. officials say China has cut its imports from Iran by one-quarter since January. Singapore has pledged to cease purchasing Iranian oil altogether.
Sen. Robert Menendez, who co-wrote the Iran sanctions law, said the waivers showed the "tremendous effectiveness" of the U.S. restrictions on dealing with Iran's Central Bank. Menendez, D-N.J., called on China to make further reductions in imports over the coming months.
But the Republican who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the administration was giving Beijing a "free pass."
"The administration likes to pat itself on the back for supposedly being strong on Iran sanctions," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. "But actions speak louder than words, and today the administration has granted a free pass to Iran's biggest enabler, China, which purchases more Iranian crude than any other country."
The administration, however, offered no waiver to Pakistan and some other Asian countries that buy oil from Iran. Under the law, their banks are now subject to U.S. penalties if they are caught facilitating substantial purchases of Iranian petroleum.
Lee reported from Riga, Latvia.