Fri 9:08pm: US exempts EU nations from Iran oil sanctions

WASHINGTON – The U.S. granted exemption from Iran sanctions to 10 European countries and Japan today because all of them have significantly reduced or halted oil imports from the Islamic Republic.

Japan continues to import oil from Iran but all European Union countries halted them a year ago.

American sanctions are designed to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program, which Washington suspects is aimed at producing weapons. Iran has repeatedly insisted it is only for generating electricity and medical research.

The most ambitious U.S. tactic has involved pressuring countries around the world to cut commercial ties with Iran or face a series of restrictions on what type of business they can conduct in the United States, the world’s largest market. But the Obama administration has been granting exemptions to a number of mostly Asian countries that rely on Iranian oil on condition that they significantly reduce their imports over time.

The entire European Union has not purchased Iranian oil since July 1, 2012, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. Because of that reduction, the U.S. said 10 EU countries had qualified for six-month sanctions exemptions: Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Britain.

The State Department said a total of 20 countries have continued to significantly reduce their crude oil purchases from Iran. China remains Iran’s top trading partner and its No. 1 client for oil exports, with Japan, India and South Korea among other top purchasers.

Despite plummeting sales overseas, Iran remains one of the world’s largest oil producers. Its exports bring in tens of billions of dollars in revenue for the country’s hard-line leaders, money the U.S. is trying to cut off.

A senior U.S. official told The Associated Press last week that sanctions have reduced Iranian oil exports by 58 percent since late 2011. He also said the U.S. has concluded that nearly half of Iran’s monthly earnings from crude oil exports are accumulating in accounts overseas because of sanctions that restrict Tehran’s access to the money.

But economists said Iran is also finding ways to work around sanctions, for example by increasing exports of non-oil, non-sanctioned goods.