US may punish India for buying Iranian oil

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India over its continued economic ties with Iran amid disagreements between Washington and New Delhi over how much and how soon the latter is reducing oil imports from the (in US eyes) pariah nation.

President Obama could be forced to bar access to the US banking system for any Indian bank processing oil payments through the Iranian Central Bank, anonymous US officials told Bloomberg.

India, one of the most important US allies in Asia, has rebelled against American pressure to cut oil imports. Washington, followed by the EU, imposed sanctions on Tehran in an attempt to force the Islamic republic to give up its nuclear programme.

Last year India was the fourth largest buyer of Iranian oil behind China, the EU (being the second largest buyer collectively) and Japan. It purchases around 12 per cent of all its crude from IRI (a transaction that is worth around $12 billion each year) and it still hasn’t asked its refiners to stop purchasing crude.

“We abide scrupulously by UN authorized sanctions,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told Bloomberg in a telephone interview. He added that the restrictions imposed by individual countries “have an impact on commercial interactions,” and “from a legal perspective there is nothing that binds us to follow them.”

The news on possible US sanctions against India come after the International Energy Agency released a report on Wednesday, saying India and South Korea have sharply increased oil purchases from Iran since January.

Pakistan also faces US pressure from the 2700 km long pipeline that will start transferring Iranian gas from 2014: the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned recently the deal could spur US sanctions.

The most peculiar thing is that the new US 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. But given the level of trade between Iran and India, particularly where oil is concerned, New Delhi is a top priority target for Washington.

Meanwhile, the European Union is tightening financial restrictions on Iran as part of the bloc’s attempts to pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear programme, the EU Council said on Thursday.

The Council, which represents EU member states, has already imposed asset freezes and other restrictions on a number of people and entities associated with Iran’s nuclear activities.

“In this context, the Council agreed that no specialised financial messaging shall be provided to those persons and entities subject to an asset freeze,” the Council said in a statement.

Details of the move would be published in the EU Official Journal on Friday, the Council said.

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