Obama administration officials say they are worried India may run afoul of a new U.S. law restricting payments for Iranian oil, forcing the White House to impose sanctions on one of its most important allies in Asia.
So far this year, India is failing to cut back its purchases of Iranian oil, which may force President Barack Obama to impose penalties as early as June 28, according to several U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The U.S. law, which targets oil payments made through Iran’s central bank, applies in any country that doesn’t make a “significant” reduction in its Iranian crude oil purchases during the first half of this year. If India fails to sufficiently cut Iranian imports, Obama may be compelled to bar access to the U.S. banking system for any Indian bank processing oil payments through Iran’s central bank, the U.S. officials said.
While India hasn’t asked its refiners to stop purchasing Iranian crude, the government has told processors in the South Asian nation to seek alternate supplies and gradually reduce their dependence on the Persian Gulf state due to increasing pressure from the U.S. in recent weeks, three Indian officials with direct knowledge of the situation said today.
India hasn’t significantly cut imports this year because refiners’ annual crude term deals with Iran typically run from April to March, they said. The planned reductions will start only when new annual contracts begin next month, the Indian officials said, declining to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
No. 3 Buyer
“Given the level of trade, and in particular oil, between Iran and India, targeting an Indian entity that facilitates Iran’s access to the international financial market should be top of mind for the U.S. Treasury,” Avi Jorisch, a former Treasury Department official who is now a Washington-based consultant on deterring illicit finance, said in an interview.
India bought an average of 328,000 barrels a day of Iranian crude in the first six months of last year, making it the No. 3 buyer, behind China and Japan and ahead of South Korea, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Iran is the No. 2 producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The U.S. government may not be aware that India’s biggest buyer of Iranian oil, state-owned Mangalore Refinery & Petrochemicals Ltd. (MRPL), plans to import less from Iran starting next month, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak.
Oil Minister S. Jaipal Reddy, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai have said India will continue to buy Iranian oil to meet its growing energy needs. While the Indian government has an excellent record of enforcing United Nations sanctions on Iran, India has objected to unilateral U.S. sanctions, according to U.S. officials.
“We abide scrupulously by UN authorized sanctions,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said in a phone interview. While restrictions imposed by individual countries “have an impact on commercial interactions, from a legal perspective there is nothing that binds us to follow them.”
Oil Purchases Rise
The latest shipping data shows India and South Korea sharply increased oil purchases from Iran in January, according to a report released yesterday by the International Energy Agency in Paris. China halved its imports from Iran, from 550,000 barrels a day in December to 275,000 barrels a day in January, following a dispute over pricing terms that has now been resolved, the report said.
The new U.S. law targeting Iranian petroleum transactions doesn’t specify by what percentage a nation must reduce its Iranian oil imports to qualify for an exemption from sanctions. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they are looking for cuts of around 15 percent in volume, though they might consider whether buyers have extracted significant price discounts, thereby depriving Iran of revenue.
Mangalore Refinery may cut its contract to 6 million metric tons, or 120,000 barrels a day, in the year ending March 2013, which would be a 15 percent cut from the previous year, one of the people with knowledge of the planned reductions said.