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US still aims to cut Iran's oil exports to zero: State Department official

Tokyo — The US continues to pursue a zero-tolerance policy for its Iran oil sanctions and is urging importers to eliminate all purchases from the Middle East country, Francis Fannon, assistant secretary at the US State Department's Bureau of Energy Resources, said Monday during a visit to Japan.

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"The US policy is to drive Iranian exports to zero," Fannon said during a media briefing in Tokyo. "That policy has not changed. We are unwavering in our policy."

Fannon was asked whether Washington would consider extending Iran sanctions waivers when they expire in May, given falling supplies from Saudi Arabia as a result of the production cut agreement by OPEC and allies, and the ongoing crisis in sanctions-hit Venezuela.

He said it was premature to say whether the State Department would grant new waivers in May to the eight countries that were allowed to continue importing Iranian oil in return for promising to significantly cut their dependence on the supplies.

Fannon is in Japan after visiting South Korea early last week. Both oil-importing countries are asking Washington to grant them new 180-day waivers to import Iranian crude when the current exemptions expire May 4.

Asked whether he discussed with Japan efforts to find new crude sources, Fannon said: "We encourage all countries to diversify sources away from Iran." He said that message was for all of Iran's customers: "It's not unique to any one country."

"We recognize that countries need supplies, and are continued to be encouraged that there are alternative sources," Fannon said, adding that the US Energy Information Administration is projecting a surplus of about 440,000 b/d in 2019 and 630,000 b/d in 2020.

All transactions under the US State Department's current "significant reduction exemptions" must be completed by May 4. Fresh waivers would start May 5 for countries that the US determines to have been able to significantly reduce Iranian imports in the previous six months.

The State Department has said the assistant secretary's two-country tour will focus on energy security, regional cooperation on energy as well as highlighting the importance of energy diversification in the Indo-Pacific region.

South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Yun Kang-hyeon, Fannon and his counterpart "talked about the Iranian crude issue and South Korea's efforts toward diversification of sources of crude imports," a diplomatic source in Seoul told S&P Global Platts.

JAPANESE REFINERS AWAIT NEW WAIVER

Japanese refiners, meanwhile, are planning to load Iranian crude by March and expect to halt the liftings in April if there is no news of a US waiver extension, Petroleum Association of Japan president Takashi Tsukioka said Friday.

"It would be best to have clarity over the sanctions waivers by the end of March," Tsukioka said. "If decided in March, we will be able to continue loading."

Showa Shell, Fuji Oil and Cosmo Oil were the first Japanese refiners to resume Iranian crude loadings in January--the first in four months--totaling around 4.9 million barrels.

This was followed by JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy resuming loadings in early February.

In South Korea, SK Innovation received about 2 million barrels of Iran's South Pars condensate in January, which marked the country's first imports since September, when the Northeast Asian nation fully suspended crude imports from Iran due to the re-imposition of US sanctions on November 5.

-- Takeo Kumagai, takeo.kumagai@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Jonathan Fox, newsdesk@spglobal.com

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