Iran, Oil and U.S. Sanctions: Beijing’s Complex Response

Beijing may be huffing and puffing about the sanctions Washington imposed last week on state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp. for selling refined petroleum products to Iran, but it can scarcely be surprised.

“Imposing sanctions on a Chinese company based on a domestic (US) law is totally unreasonable and does not conform to the spirit or content of the UN Security Council resolutions about the Iran nuclear issue,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin says.

But it is what Washington does. Zhuhai Zhenron is one of three firms to be sanctioned in this case. The other two were Singapore’s Kuo Oil and the United Arab Emirates’ FAL Oil. Even though the sanctions on Zhuhai Zhenrong are largely symbolic as it does not do much business in the U.S. they could be considered a warning to some larger Chinese energy firms that do.

The sanctions followed Beijing’s rejection earlier last week of visiting U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s request that China use its economic clout as Iran’s largest oil export market to press Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions. Recent tightening of U.S. and EU sanctions won’t mean much if Tehran can still ship lots of oil eastwards. Tehran depends on crude oil exports for 60% of revenues and 80% of its hard currency.

Beijing’s argument was that China depended on Iranian oil for its economic development. Up to a point, but meanwhile, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is in Saudi Arabia for the signing of an agreement between Sinopec and the Saudi energy giant Aramco to build an oil refinery Yanbu on the Red Sea with the capacity to refine 400,000 barrels of oil a day. Along with Angola, Saudi Arabia is already one of China’s top two suppliers of oil, ahead of Iran, which the number three. Wen would like to be assured China can get more oil from Saudi Arabia if necessary. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also on Wen’s itinerary.

Tensions are likely to remain high in the Strait of Hormuz for the foreseeable future. Iran is dependent on a break-even price for oil of $90 a barrel, so tension, if not hostilities, may suit it. Even if China and India follow Japan in reducing their purchases of Iranian oil, and even if that cut was by as much as 25%, Iran will get by. Meanwhile, China will continue to seek alternative sources of oil, and not be too sorry if Washington is diverted from its new geo-political pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region by a reminder of its interests in the MidEast.

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