Japan to reduce oil imports from Iran

TOKYO (AP) — Japan will start to reduce oil imports from Iran in support of U.S. sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, Finance Minister Jun Azumi said Thursday after meeting with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Iran’s “nuclear development problem can’t be ignored by the world, so from that perspective we understand the U.S. actions,” Azumi told a press conference.

Japan’s receptivity contrasts with silence on the matter — at least outwardly — from China during Geithner’s visit to Beijing Wednesday. Earlier this week, China, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, had rejected the U.S. sanctions as improper.

Washington is targeting Iran’s oil exports in an attempt to halt what Western governments say is its effort to develop nuclear weapons. The sanctions would bar financial institutions from the U.S. market if they do business with Iran’s central bank.

Japan imports about 10 percent of its oil from Iran, Azumi said, and has been steadily reducings its reliance on Iranian oil over the last five years.

“We plan to start reducing this 10 percent share at soon as possible in a planned manner,” he said.

Experts speculate that Japan will move to diversify its oil imports by turning to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the three top exporters of oil to Japan.

Azumi said working out a plan for non-oil imports would take more time. Japan also imports natural gas from Iran.

China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, depends on Iran for 11 percent of its oil imports. China bought about 600,000 barrels of Iranian crude per day in November, nearly one-third of Iran’s daily exports of 2.2 million barrels, making Chinese cooperation key to the success of sanctions.

Geithner told reporters in Tokyo that the U.S. was working closely with “countries around the world to substantially increase the amount of pressure we bring on Iran” by cutting off “the central bank from the international financial system and to reduce the earnings Iran derives from its oil exports.”

The U.S. was in the early stages of consulting with allies about how to achieve that, Geithner said.

“We very much appreciate the support Japan has provided in standing with us and the international community in support of this very important strategic objective,” he said.

During their one-hour meeting, the two men also discussed the eurozone debt crisis and Japan’s reconstruction from the tsunami disaster in March.

“The leaders of Europe appear to be making some progress in containing their crisis,” Geithner said.

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