Tokyo and Seoul struggle to quit Iranian oil habit

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REPORTING FROM SEOUL — South Korea and Japan, two energy-challenged Asian nations dependent on Iranian crude oil, are pondering ways to overcome the steep price of adhering to a U.S. embargo against the Middle Eastern country.

Reeling from the financial aftermath of March’s earthquake and tsunami, Tokyo officials are exploring alternative petroleum sources to fuel a flagging economy especially reliant on imported oil and natural gas.

"We are considering our response and are closely discussing the matter with the U.S.," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, Kazuhiro Kawase, said Friday.

Earlier in the week, South Korean officials said they would ask Washington for an exemption from the embargo to lessen the “negative impacts" of the Iranian sanctions. South Korea imports 97% of its oil and, like Japan, depends on Iran for up to 10% of its supplies.

The South Korean press reported Sunday that Seoul officials are considering a move to reduce imports of Iranian oil to 2010 levels.

China, the region’s biggest importer of Iranian oil, has balked at the embargo, with Beijing calling for negotiations with Washington. "Sanctioning is not the correct approach to easing tensions," said Chinese ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

Reacting to the worsening diplomatic standoff, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will visit Beijing and Tokyo this week. Seoul plans to send a delegation to Washington to discuss the sanctions, approved last month by President Barack Obama as a way to prompt Tehran to give up its burgeoning nuclear program.

South Korea and Japan have been placed in the most precarious position by the oil embargo, which bars financial institutions from buying or selling Iranian oil or oil products.

Japan's foreign minister this week will visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Officials say the trip was previously scheduled and it remains unclear whether any new oil deals will be struck.

"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.

Editorials in Japan’s major newspapers warn that the nation will be doubly hit by the difficulty of procuring oil at high prices 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.

South Korea has also claimed that cutting back on Iranian oil would cause financial havoc. In a meeting in Seoul last month, senior U.S. State Department adviser for non-proliferation and arms control Robert Einhorn continued to pressure officials. “Iran is violating international obligations and norms. It is becoming a pariah state,” he told reporters.

But the embargo seems to have support among the South Korean public.

"Iran's nuclear weapons program should be stopped, and an international effort should be put together. Of course, it is natural for South Korea to participate in that effort," wrote one Internet user.

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-- John M. Glionna

Photo: The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Straits of Hormuz. Credit: U.S. Navy

 
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