Japan yesterday urged Iran to comply with a UN Security Council resolution demanding a suspension of its uranium enrichment, describing it as an important step toward resolving concerns over Tehran's nuclear program.
The resolution, drafted by Britain, France and Germany with US backing and passed on Monday, gives Iran until Aug. 31. to halt its enrichment activities or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Iran immediately rejected the resolution, saying it would only make negotiations more difficult concerning a package of incentives offered in June for it to suspend enrichment.
"Japan strongly hopes that Iran will accept as early as possible the proposal ... and return to negotiations after complying with the resolution's demands," government spokesman Shinzo Abe told reporters.
Resource-poor Japan has been in a tough spot after Iran's nuclear ambitions surfaced, stuck between the need to meet its energy requirements and its desire to keep in line with Washington, its closest security ally.
Japan imports much of its oil from Iran and has a US$2 billion project to tap one of Iran's oil fields in Azadegan -- among the world's largest.
"The Azadegan oil field development project is an extremely important project from the perspective of securing Japan's energy," Abe said.
"Economic projects such as the one at Azadegan will not have an impact on our stance toward the nuclear problem," he added.
The US in recent months has asked Tokyo to freeze the project, according to media reports.
Japan has started to curb crude oil imports from Iran amid the nuclear controversy. Oil shipments from Iran fell by 20 percent in April compared to a year earlier, according to Trade Ministry data.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who said in June that Tokyo would join international sanctions imposed over Iran, said resolving the nuclear standoff was more important.
"The nuclear issue takes precedence," Aso said, when asked about Tokyo's position over the Azadegan project.
Japan and Iran have been deadlocked in negotiations over developing the field since the deal was signed in 2004, when the project was thought to require an investment of some US$2 billion.
Last week, Iran said it would finalize the Azadegan deal by Aug. 22 with Japan's INPEX Holdings, but Japan's biggest oil explorer -- whose major stakeholder is the government -- said landmines in the area prevented a quick agreement.
Iran had long been Japan's third-largest supplier of oil, but Japanese refiners have cut down on Iranian oil following the nuclear stand-off with the West, and its standing fell to fifth place in June.