South Korea and Iran oil sanctions

The United States continues to pressure South Korea to cut off or limit their imports of Iranian oil in the face of the continued international effort ostensibly designed to limit Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The European Union agreed to impose oil sanctions by July, in order to arrange another source for their oil. Iran responded by cutting off Britain and France’s oil early, and seeking other buyers. Meanwhile, among those who refuse to play along with the oil embargo are China, India, Russia and Turkey. Japan appears to be on the verge of obtaining an exemption from Washington by agreeing to cut their imports by 11 per cent each year.

Precedent dictates that it is only natural that Europe would side with America, while China, India and Russia would play their own game. Europe can fall back on new-found Libyan oil reserves, while China and Russia are largely at odds with American foreign policy and have their own interests to consider.

South Korea is caught in a much different net. As a strong ally of America, many feel it has a duty to follow American foreign policy demands. However, doing so in this case would be extremely damaging to its own economy.

South Korea gets about ten percent of its annual oil imports from Iran and as an essentially non-oil producing country cannot quickly replace such a large amount without hurting its own people financially. Yet, most South Korean politicians maintain the position that in order to deter North Korea, they depend on the alliance with America and their troop presence in the country.

What to do?

Iran’s nuclear program

All discussions about Iran and their nuclear program need to begin with unequivocal facts. The situation is actually quite simple. The International Atomic Energy Agency — the United Nations mandated watchdog for nuclear development — has verified, up until their last inspection and report, that Iran still has not diverted any of its nuclear program toward the development of nuclear weapons. American intelligence also continues to verify this fact. There is no evidence to the contrary.

The United States and Israel repeatedly ask Iran to prove a negative  — that it doesn’t have nuclear weapons. No matter what Iran does there will always be a suspected hidden facility in the imagination of most American and Israeli politicians. They have claimed Iran has been close to nuclear weapons for over thirty years. Until Iran confesses to doing something it isn’t doing, the U.S. and Israel, along with their European followers seem intent on insisting Iran cease their enrichment of uranium. But this is an infringement of every nations’ sovereign rights and over 50 countries in the world have the capability to create weapons, but haven’t developed them.

Perhaps from the South Korean perspective it doesn’t really matter whether American and Israeli claims that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon are true or not, at least in the immediate term. The country’s ability to change the international discourse on the issue is very limited.

But in the long term it is an essential fact. This is because  the oil that ships through the Strait of Hormuz — a small body of water separating the Persian Gulf from Iran — accounts for roughly 20 per cent of global oil exports.

View Strait of Hormuz in a larger map

If Israel or America attack Iran — an apparent danger at this point — Iran would almost certainly line the strait with explosives, cutting off that source from everyone, and cause the price of oil to skyrocket. This would cripple the international economy, and most especially nations that import virtually all their oil, like South Korea.

So, every country in the world including South Korea should be doing everything they can to ensure events do not spiral out of control in the Persian Gulf.

The limitations of the alliance

South Korea finds itself at odds with its own national interests due to its alliance with America. This wouldn’t be the first occasion. Not only is America asking South Korea to cut off a major limb of their energy supply, they are also demanding South Korea take actions that could drive Iran further into an alliance with North Korea.

As mutual international pariahs, according to the U.S. umbrella of influence at least, North Korea and Iran have already colluded on weapons deals in the past. There is no reason for South Korea to encourage Iran to find comfort in the North’s arms when they are still technically at war with their northern relatives. On the contrary, it would make more sense to court the Iranians and their oil while at the same time preventing the North from gaining any more influence or friendships internationally.  Choosing sides limits future options for trade and diplomacy.

For Iran’s part, they have repeatedly offered to make deals with the U.S.. They made a significant agreement while negotiating with Brazil and Turkey going so far as to agree to American demands to send their uranium abroad for enrichment. This would have avoided the possibility of Iran’s uranium being used for weapons production. After enrichment it would have been sent back to Iran for energy and medical purposes. This would have been a major concession for any sovereign nation to make. Yet, the U.S. denied the offer, despite having demanded it in the first place.

South Korea’s best interest

South Korea’s best interests are not in tune with American demands. It makes no sense to make enemies with a would-be oil provider, only to drive them further toward Chinese and North Korean influence. This argument holds true for America as well.

The Iranian regime itself is not particularly effected by the oil sanctions anyway. Sanctions tend only to harm regular people while the government doubles down and weathers the damage, drawing more support from its citizenry who are rightly furious about the treatment they are enduring from international forces. This is the case in Iran today.

It is very likely in this case that South Korea wont have to make much of a decision at all. While reports from Iran are that South Korea intends to cut-off 10-15 percent of their oil imports, they have not officially announced this decision. If it is true it could represent a middle way engineered to placate both sides.

America cannot force South Korea to cut oil imports from Iran. A threat to take American soldiers from South Korea would be hollow, and indeed self-damaging for proponents of American intervention in all things abroad. South Korea’s military is sufficiently capable of defending itself from a North Korean suicide invasion — a fact Imperial Washington probably doesn’t want the South to realize.

The sanction question represents more of a problem for Washington than it does for Seoul. For South Korea the choice is obvious — against sanctions and America’s wishes. The consequences are likely to be small but the choice would be very symbolic: in the age of declining American influence internationally it is becoming clear that it makes more sense for South Korea to pursue an independent foreign policy according to their own national interest than to blindly go along with the American standard that increasingly diverges from that interest.

As Yong Kwon of the Asia Times said, “…when East Asian states are forced to undertake high risk issues that are practically non-essential to them, such as Iran’s nuclear program, it only highlights the slowly diminishing importance of the United States.”

By acting independent of American interests, South Korea could be an international leader toward an emerging trend — something many South Koreans would like their country to become.


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