WASHINGTON, Mar 24: The United States denied it had asked Japan to suspend plans to develop an Iranian oil field as part of its efforts to curb Iran's nuclear programs.
The United States has long objected to resource-poor Japan's plans to develop Iran's Azadegan oil field, estimated to hold one of the world's biggest oil reserves.
But U S officials denied a Japanese newspaper report that Americans had raised the issue anew as part of a Washington effort to build international pressure to stop what it believes is Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
The Sankei Shimbun reported, citing U.S. government sources, that U S Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph had informally asked Japan to at least temporarily suspend plans to develop Azadegan in part to try to isolate Tehran.
The report came a week after Japan's largest refiner, Nippon Oil Corp., said yesterday it would cut imports of Iranian crude due to rising risks associated with the country, the first hint that Tehran's nuclear dispute was affecting its vital oil trade.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said neither diplomat had made such a request. ''It is an issue that we have raised repeatedly in the past,'' he said.
He said he did not know when a senior American official last discussed the U S objections with Japan.
Another State Department official went further, saying that no senior diplomat had repeated U.S. objections to the project as part of efforts against Iran's atomic programs. The official had checked with several senior diplomats' aides about the report but was not authorized to speak for the record.
McCormack outlined the years-old U.S. position.
''We have raised our concerns with Japan about investment in Iran's petroleum sector and we've made consistently clear to Japan as well as other countries that such investment runs into trouble with U S law and policy and we asked them to take a look at it,'' he said.
Japan's top government spokesman, Shinzo Abe, said Tokyo's plans to develop Azadegan were not currently a topic of discussion with the United States and added that the project was vital for Japan's aim of securing stable energy supplies. Tokyo would pay heed both to nuclear non-proliferation and its own energy needs, he said.
''It is not the case that the Japanese government is holding concrete discussions at this juncture with the United States regarding the future direction of the development of the Azadegan oil field,'' said Abe, the chief cabinet secretary.
''We would like to deal with this firmly based upon our basic recognition that both ... the nuclear non-proliferation issue and stable crude oil supplies are important,'' he told reporters.
John Bolton, U S ambassador to the United Nations, said Iran wanted to influence Japan.
''I understand the need for energy in Japan and the risk that the Iranians will try and take unfair advantage of that,'' Bolton told reporters in New York.
Japan sealed a deal with Iran two years ago on the project to develop Azadegan. The Japanese government has a 36 percent stake in the firm developing the region.
The U N Security Council, which can impose sanctions, has so far failed to reach accord on a statement calling on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. Iran denies it wants an atomic bomb.
Iran is Japan's third-largest oil supplier, and Tokyo has maintained healthy relations with Tehran even at the expense of upsetting Washington.