Tokyo’s close ties with the U.S. paid off this week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Japan will be one of 11 nations exempt from sanctions on countries that buy oil from Iran. Aimed at pressuring Tehran to stop its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. sanctions will target financial institutions of nations that continue to do business with Iran’s central bank, barring them from transactions with American government agencies and companies. On Tuesday, Clinton applauded Japan and 10 European nations, including the U.K., for cooperating with U.S. policy and significantly reducing their Iranian oil imports.
Japan, one of Iran’s biggest oil customers, earned a special shout-out from Clinton, who called Tokyo’s efforts “especially noteworthy considering the extraordinary energy and other challenges it has faced over the past year.” Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was crippled in the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, all but two of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors have been shut down for maintenance and safety checks, forcing the nation to lean more heavily on its fossil-fuel power plants. Nevertheless, the Japan Times reports, oil imports from Iran were slashed from between 15% and 22% in the second half of last year, and Japanese officials have pledged this week to continue to cut them even more.
That promise leaves an oil gap that Japan, a resource-poor archipelago that relies on imports for over 80% of its energy needs, will need to fill while it figures out when and if more of its nuclear reactors will restart. Japan imports more than half its oil from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates alone. In the past year, Tokyo has been seeking to strengthen ties with other partners like Kuwait, currently Japan’s fourth largest oil supplier, after Iran. Kuwaiti ruler Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad is, in fact, in Japan this week on a state visit and met with Emperor Akihito on Wednesday in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
The fact that Tokyo went ahead with such a big cut during an energy crunch probably speaks as much to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program as it does to wanting to stay in the good graces of its most important military ally. With North Korea threatening to launch a rocket in April and China continuing its policy of territorial expansion in the region, safeguarding the U.S.-Japan security alliance is at the top of Tokyo’s list of priorities. Even this week, as the exemptions were announced, Chinese leaders were claiming in the state press that they intended to pursue national claims over the disputed Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands, which both Japan and China say are rightfully theirs.
China, India and South Korea, also some of Iran’s biggest oil customers, were notably missing from Clinton’s exemption list and may face sanctions if they do not “significantly” reduce their imports. What that means in numbers, however, remains unclear and is up to the White House to determine. The sanctions, which were ordered by Congress and will kick in at the end of June, have put the Obama Administration in a tight spot with many of its allies, prompting Clinton to call for the exemptions in the first place. The 180-day exemption period for the 11 countries Clinton named this week ends mid-September, at which point the U.S. says it will review the nations’ energy imports and consider an extension.
Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr.