Japan's lower house passed a bill on Friday to provide government guarantees on insurance for Iranian crude cargoes, a key step towards it becoming the first of Iran's big Asian oil buyers to get round new European Union sanctions.
The bill will now be sent to the upper house, where opposition parties have the majority but have signalled their support. It will become law by around June 27 if passed before the current parliamentary session ends next Thursday, said a government official who requested anonymity.
The Japanese government, which has succeeded in getting a waiver from U.S. financial sanctions, wants to provide coverage of up to $7.6 billion for each tanker carrying Iranian crude oil bound for Japan in the event of accidents.
An EU ban on member countries importing Iranian oil takes effect on July 1 and includes a ban on EU insurance firms from covering Iran's exports. That is a headache for Japan, South Korea, China and India, which together buy two thirds of Iran's oil exports and rely on EU companies to insure them.
EU and U.S. sanctions aim to cut the oil revenues on which Tehran depends to force the Islamic Republic to curb its nuclear programme. The West suspects Iran aims to develop weapons, while Tehran says it needs reactors for electricity supplies.
Iranian oil accounted for nearly 9 percent of Japan's crude imports last year. Japan has reduced the flow already to comply with U.S. sanctions requiring buyers to make sizeable cuts, but wants to avoid more drastic reductions that may drive up energy import costs and hurt the world's third-largest economy.
Refiners cut their purchases even as the country has needed more oil to fire power stations after last year's Fukushima disaster shut down the country's nuclear power capacity.
INDIA, CHINA FACE SAME ISSUE
India's government, which won an exemption to U.S. sanctions this week, has also been trying to figure out how it will get around the EU sanctions.
"We are struggling to find solutions," Oil Minister S. Jaipal Reddy told reporters in Vienna, where crude producers from OPEC are meeting. The government was studying sovereign guarantees, he added.
Iran's top buyer China has yet to detail how it plans to resolve the insurance problem, but industry sources there have said they will find a way to keep imports flowing.
South Korea will reduce imports to zero in July due to the insurance ban, industry sources have said. Seoul, like Tokyo, has lobbied the EU to delay or get a waiver on implementing the ban on insurers, but is not considering state guarantees, according to government sources there.
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