The US collaborated with Saudi Arabia to increase crude oil supplies to China at the expense of Iran, US diplomatic cables show. The move was designed to hurt Iran and win Beijing’s support for sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program.
China has long worried that oil supplies from Iran could be choked off if it sides too closely with the West over Tehran’s disputed nuclear activity, which opponents say is intended to give it the means to assemble nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
However, as Saudi deliveries of crude increased to China over the past years, so has Beijing’s support for UN sanctions against Tehran — although Chinese state oil conglomerates have been moving into the vacuum created by the withdrawal of most major players from the Iranian oil patch.
The cables, obtained by Wiki-Leaks and provided to Reuters by a third party, lay out how US diplomats worked with Saudi Arabia and other big Middle Eastern oil suppliers to persuade Beijing to back tougher sanctions on Iran.
Saudi Arabia and the US discussed how increasing Saudi crude supplies to China “would have the welcome side impact of reducing Iranian leverage over China,” US officials told Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi in August 2009.
Two months earlier, a senior French diplomat overseeing Middle Eastern affairs told a US embassy official that Saudi diplomats had told China: “If you want oil from us ... then you must put more pressure on Iran.”
For Saudi Arabia, increasing crude exports to China also made economic sense.
Saudi oil sales to China were growing in response to increasing demand, and Saudi wanted to diversify its customers just as China and many other countries wanted to diversify energy supplies and suppliers, al-Naimi told US officials according to a cable dated August 2009.
Saudi Arabia is now China’s biggest source of oil and it delivers more oil to China now than it does to the US.
Once Saudi Arabia began stepping up oil deliveries to China, Beijing began urging Iran to take seriously Western proposals for ways to end the nuclear standoff.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) told US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice in a June 2009 meeting that “China urged Iran more than once to be forthcoming with the US ‘in many areas.’”
Yang also said he believed, regardless of Iran’s rhetoric, that “deep down” Tehran must be impressed by US President Barack Obama’s willingness to work together.
That meeting was one of several instances which illustrated how China acted as a go-between for Washington with Iran, or was asked to be one.
Just as Washington sought to get Saudi Arabia to replace Iranian crude deliveries to China, it is now trying to divert Chinese companies away from Iran with both carrots and sticks.
The US Congress passed new sanctions against any company selling gasoline to Iran or investing in Iran’s refining capacity, after the UN Security Council penalized Tehran in June for failing to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.
The congressional sanctions could affect the US operations of Chinese energy conglomerates and other foreign firms operating in Iran’s energy sector.
To avoid yet another headache with Washington, the Chinese government has asked its big energy firms to go slow in Iran, industry sources said last October.
“The political pressure came directly from the government ... and I believe it’s logical to draw a link with these US deals,” one industry official with knowledge of China’s overseas oil and gas activities said.