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China defies U.S. pressure as EU parts ways with Iranian oil

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters): China, seeking to skirt U.S. sanctions, will use oil tankers from Iran for its purchases of that country’s crude, throwing Tehran a lifeline while European companies such as France’s Total are walking away due to fear of reprisals from Washington.

The United States is trying to halt Iranian oil exports in an effort to force Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear agreement and to curb its influence in the Middle East.

China, which has cut imports of U.S. crude amid a trade war with Washington, has said it opposes unilateral sanctions and defended its commercial ties with Iran.

On Monday, sources told Reuters Chinese buyers of Iranian oil were beginning to shift their cargoes to vessels owned by National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC) for nearly all their imports.

The shift demonstrates that China, Iran’s biggest oil customer, wants to keep buying Iranian crude despite the sanctions, which were reimposed after the United States withdrew in May from a 2015 agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

“The shift started very recently, and it was almost a simultaneous call from both sides,” said one source, a senior Beijing-based oil executive, who asked not to be identified as he is not allowed to speak publicly about commercial deals.

Tehran used a similar system between 2012 and 2016 to circumvent Western-led sanctions, which had curtailed exports by making it virtually impossible to obtain shipping insurance for business with Iran.

Iran, OPEC’s third-largest oil producer, relies on sales of crude to China, Japan, South Korea, India and the EU to generate the lion’s share of budget revenues and keep its economy afloat.

The United States has asked buyers of Iranian oil to cut imports from November. Japan, South Korea, India and most European countries have already slashed operations.

French oil major Total (TOTF.PA), previously one of the biggest European buyers of Iranian oil, has said it had no choice but to halt imports and abandon Iranian projects to safeguard its operations in the United States.

On Monday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said Total had officially left Iran’s South Pars gas project.

Total later confirmed it had notified the Iranian authorities of its withdrawal from South Pars after it failed to obtain a waiver from U.S. sanctions.

Iranian officials had earlier suggested China’s state-owned CNPC could take over Total’s stake and Zanganeh said the process to replace the French company was under way.

“As for the future of Total’s share, we have not been informed of an official CNPC position, but as we have always said, CNPC, a Chinese state-owned company, has the right to resume our participation if it decides so,” Total said in an emailed statement.

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