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Japan looks for way to ease bite of Iran oil cutoff while reserves, warm weather give some relief

Japan is outwardly calm, but inwardly uneasy, about the recent Iranian cutoff of oil exports to this resource-hungry nation. The calm is accounted for by these facts: that the peak winter consumption period is over; that Japan has a 95-day oil stockpile; and that unless other nations follow Iran's example, Japan can hold out for at least six months.

The uneasiness stems from uncertainty over possible future oil price hikes from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and countries supplying the spot market.

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Despite these economic factors, however, there is a highly visible political ingredient in the situation: Washington's demand that its allies impose some form of economic sanctions to help bring about the release of American hostages held at the US Embassy in Teheran.

This political factor prompted Foreign Minister Saburo Okita to meet with the nine member states of the European Community over a coordinated approach on sanctions.

Mr. Okita reportedly found agreement with his West European colleagues on two points: the early release of the hostages by Iran, and no use of military force by the United States.

Last year, Washington severly criticized the Japanese for trying to take advantage of Iran's oil cutoff to the US by buying Iranian oil at high spot-market prices.

Now the Japanese find themselves praised by the Carter administration for having refused to pay the $35-per-barrel price the Iranians are demanding.

Since World War II Japan has not lead in foreign-policy matters. But suddenly the Japanese are finding themselves far out front of other Western allies on the question of Iranian oil purchases.

Their initial reaction is to consider it more an economic than a political dispute.

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But, in fact, the two are inextricably interwined. Ever since the US first imposed sanctions on Iran and asked its allies to follow suit, Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira has consistently placed good US-Japanese relations above the need for Iranian crude.

In addition, the 12-Japanese oil-importing companies that negotiated the latest Iranian price increases have had their fill of constant unilateral price hikes.

What happens next? Japan is currently Iran's largest customer, taking 530, 000 barrels per day or about 11 percent of all the oil it imports.

There is the possibility that Iraq, against whom Iran has declared a holy war , may help fill some of the Japanese tankers.

Last year Iraq supplied about 5 percent of Japan's oil imports. And its role as a major oil producer is coming up fast as Iranian output declines. Already it is pumping 3.3 million barrels per day, compared to the 2 million barrels daily produced by Iran.

Some of the smaller Gulf states may also help fill Japan's gap. The Japanese do not take seriously Iran's threat to divert oil sales from Japan and West Europe to East Europe. The Japanese, however, still have one very large economic hostage of their own left in Iran: a $3.3 billion petrochemical complex being built by Iran and a consortium of Japanese companies.


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