NEW DELHI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton focused on Tuesday on India's refiners for their cuts in crude imports from Iran in a shift from pressure on the New Delhi government, welcoming the steps the refineries had taken so far.
She said the United States was working with India to find alternative crude supplies, after calling on Monday for New Delhi to do "even more" to reduce its reliance on Iran, its second-biggest oil supplier and the target of U.S. sanctions.
"We commend India for the steps its refineries are taking to reduce imports from Iran and we have also been consulting with India and working with them in some areas on alternative sources of supply," Clinton told a press conference on the last day of her three-day visit to India.
As Tehran's second-biggest crude customer, India is crucial to U.S. efforts to squeeze Iran's economy until it agrees to curb its nuclear programme, which the United States and other Western nations suspect is a cover to build atomic weapons.
Publicly, India has rejected Western sanctions. But privately, it has pushed local refiners to start cutting imports. India's refiners signed new yearly contracts with Iran running from April 1 and Reuters calculations suggest imports could fall about 25 percent in 2012/2013.
New Delhi has maintained that it makes sense to diversify suppliers of crude as the energy demands of its trillion-dollar economy rise. It stresses that such decisions are made by the refiners and are commercially driven. Many of the refiners are state-run.
On Monday, Clinton said India "as a country ... is certainly working toward lowering their purchase of Iranian oil."
In March, the United States granted exemptions to Japan and 10 European Union nations from the sanctions, which aim to shut out importers of Iranian crude from the U.S. financial system. India and China, Iran's biggest crude importer, remain at risk.
Clinton on Monday held up Japan as an example, saying it had cut imports despite having suffered an earthquake and tsunami that crippled its Fukushima nuclear reactor. Japan's cuts of between 15 and 22 percent were enough to get a waiver.
Carlos Pascual, the U.S. negotiator who has been pressing Iran's customers to cut imports, will visit India next week to discuss the issue, she said on Tuesday.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Jo Winterbottom