Heavy traffic in Beijing, where government officials oppose curbs on imports… (Adrian Bradshaw, EPA )
Reporting from Seoul — U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner faces a stiff challenge this week as he tries to convince China, Japan and South Korea to reduce their dependency on Iranian oil and natural gas.
The Obama administration is pressing those countries to help squeeze Iran financially, hoping to compel the Middle Eastern nation to abandon what Washington and allies say is a plan to develop nuclear weapons. China has so far rebuffed the overtures, arguing there should be no link between trade with Iran and its nuclear program. Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
"Sanctioning is not the correct approach to easing tensions," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
The U.S. request poses a dilemma for Japan and South Korea, both close allies of Washington but both heavily dependent on imported energy.
Japan is under particular pressure because of the diminished capacity of its power industry following the earthquake and tsunami last March that snuffed out the Fukushima nuclear plant. The country is the world's largest importer of liquid natural gas and third-largest net importer of oil, with 9% of that oil coming from Iran.
Adhering to a new round of U.S. sanctions on Iran would imperil that crucial energy source at a time when Japan's nuclear industry is in retreat.
Tokyo has acquiesced to previous U.S. pressure to limit its dealings with the Iranian energy sector. With almost no domestic fossil fuel production, Japan aggressively pursues overseas joint oil and gas ventures, and its state-owned exploration company, Impex, had planned to be a major developer of Iran's Azadegan natural gas field.
But facing the prospect of being denied access to U.S. financial institutions, Impex abandoned its stake in the project in 2010.
Last week, South Korean officials said they would ask Washington for an exemption from the embargo to lessen the "negative impacts" of the sanctions. South Korea imports 97% of its oil and depends on Iran for up to 10% of its supplies.
In a meeting in Seoul last month, Robert Einhorn, senior U.S. State Department advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, continued to pressure officials. "Iran is violating international obligations and norms. It is becoming a pariah state," he told reporters.
The South Korean press reported Sunday that Seoul officials were considering reducing imports of Iranian oil to 2010 levels.
Editorials in Japan's major newspapers warn that the nation will be hurt financially by the sanctions 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.
Japan is in a singularly difficult position because it is also a leading international voice against nuclear weapons proliferation. The nation remains scarred by its experience as the only target of an atomic attack, and takes a particularly hard line against North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions. Resisting the American-led campaign against the specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb is thus politically awkward for Tokyo.
"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.