By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States extended 180-day waivers on Iran sanctions to Japan and 10 European Union nations in exchange for their cutting purchases of the OPEC nation's crude oil, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday.
"Today's determination is another example of the international community's commitment to convince Iran to meet its international obligations," Kerry said in a statement.
The sanctions aim to choke off funding for Tehran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is trying to develop weapons, by slashing Iran's crude exports. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes.
Renewal of the waivers, known as exceptions, means that banks in the 11 countries have been given a third consecutive 180-day reprieve from the threat of being cut off from the U.S. financial system under the sanctions.
The move was expected as Japan, the world's third largest oil consumer, slashed its imports from Iran last year by 40 percent to about 190,000 barrels per day, even as its total oil imports rose 2.7 percent.
The EU implemented a full embargo on Iranian crude and petroleum products on July 1. The 10 EU countries that were granted the renewals on Wednesday are Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Last year the sanctions cut Iran's exports by half, or about 1 million barrels per day. That deprived the government in Tehran of billions of dollars in revenue and helped push down the value of Iran's currency, the rial. Inflation rose by about 25 percent.
"The message to the Iranian regime from the international community is clear: take concrete actions to satisfy the concerns of the international community, or face increasing isolation and pressure," Kerry said.
Under the sanctions law President Barack Obama signed in 2011, the State Department must review the waivers every six months. All 20 of Iran's major buyers of crude were given the waivers last year.
The State Department extended the exceptions to China, India and a number of other countries on December 7.
Critics of the sanctions say it is unclear whether the punitive measures will force Iran to slow or stop its nuclear program as the country holds large foreign exchange reserves after years of selling oil. Some sales of oil will always get around the measures, they say.
The latest U.S. sanctions on Iran, which took effect on February 6, shackle payments for Iranian oil in accounts in consumer countries. Supporters of the sanctions in the U.S. Congress say that restricts Iran's ability to make use of its oil revenues. The U.S. lawmakers want to enact even more sanctions in the coming months.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Christopher Wilson)