(CBS/AP) WASHINGTON - The Obama administration on Tuesday granted exemptions from U.S. economic sanctions to 10 European Union countries and Japan because they have significantly reduced their purchases of petroleum from Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the waivers to Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Japan, meaning that banks and other financial institutions based there will not be hit with penalties under U.S. law for 180 days.
President Barack Obama has until March 30 to determine whether oil prices and supplies are sufficient enough to levy sanctions later this year on countries that still buy oil from Iran.
Pending that decision, another 12 nations including India, China and South Korea - that are deemed to be major importers of Iranian oil have until the end of July to take similar steps or face sanctions.
In a statement, Clinton lauded the countries granted exemptions, noting that the actions they had taken to reduce their imports from Iran "were not easy."
"They had to rethink their energy needs at a critical time for the world economy and quickly begin to find alternatives to Iranian oil, which many had been reliant on for their energy needs," she said. "We commend these countries for their actions and urge other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example."
Clinton singled out Japan for praise, noting that it had acted despite severe energy constraints brought about by last year's earthquake and tsunami. Japan has reduced its imports by between 15 percent and 22 percent by finding other suppliers and focusing on alternative energy sources, according to U.S. officials.
The European nations were already subject to European Union rules requiring them to phase out their imports. Those rules were put in place after the passage of the U.S. sanctions legislation that is designed to further isolate Iran and compel it to comply with U.N. demands to come clean about its nuclear program. The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of using the program to develop atomic weapons while Iran insists it is to produce nuclear energy.
"The United States is leading an unprecedented international coalition of partners that has brought to bear significant pressure on the Iranian regime to change its course," Clinton said. "Diplomacy coupled with strong pressure can achieve the long-term solutions we seek and we will continue to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who co-authored the sanctions legislation designed to thwart Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, said in a statement that he supported the secretary's decision.
"The sanctions are working - many countries and companies have stepped up in recognition of the real threat that Iran poses to its neighbors and the global community and are terminating business relations with Iran," he said. "For the first time we are seeing a real impact on the Iranian economy."
"I think our message to Iran is clear and time will tell what they value more, their nuclear program or the political and economic stability of their state," Menedez said.
The US and Europe have imposed similar penalties on Iran's central bank. SWIFT, which operates the bulk of global cross-border payments, has blocked certain Iranian state-owned banks from using its network to help transfer funds.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services on Tuesday said US allies "around the world (were) really moving with us to tighten up" sanctions against Iran, Reuters reported.