* Waiver being considered among many options-cbank
* Considers middlemen, Oman for crude imports-sources
* Sri Lanka's refinery has limited options-minister
* Sri Lanka settles Iran oil bills via ACU-sources
By Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal
COLOMBO, Jan 13 Sri Lanka may be a minnow
in the oil world, but a near total reliance on Iranian crude
imports means it has more reason than most to find a way to
avoid being caught in the clutches of U.S. sanctions.
The island's only refinery -- the 50,000 barrels-a-day
Sapugaskanda refinery -- is almost entirely reliant on imports
of Iran's crude. Switching to alternatives is not easy because
the refinery has been configured to handle Iran's high-sulphur
and high-density crude oil.
"We don't have any other alternative than getting oil from
Iran," Petroleum Resources Minister Susil Premajayantha told
Reuters. "Our main problem is that you can't use all types of
crude here for our machines."
The Indian Ocean island is in a virtual straitjacket as the
United States tries to tighten the noose on Iran to persuade
Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.
The United States is Sri Lanka's biggest trade partner, so
much is at stake in its relationship with Washington.
The Sapugaskanda refinery relies on Iran crude, but for Sri
Lanka to qualify for a waiver from the U.S. sanctions it would
have to demonstrate to Washington a significant cut in the crude
it imports from the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka's government has moved closer
to China and Russia, two countries that oppose the U.S.
sanctions, after pressure from the United States to address
allegations of war crimes at the end of its 25-year civil war
with the Tamil Tigers in 2009 strained ties with Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed a new law on New Year's
Eve that imposed sanctions on financial institutions that deal
with Iran's central bank, which clears oil payments.
Washington has already moved to impose sanctions on a
Chinese oil company and ones in Singapore and the United Arab
Emirates, although Sri Lanka's central bank governor said the
island wouldn't be rushed into decisions.
"We have to do it very carefully," Ajith Cabraal told
Reuters. "The foreign ministry has to give their two cents, the
petroleum ministry has to give their two cents, we will have to
give our two cents and then we will have to see the whole thing
He said seeking a waiver was one option.
The new law allows Obama to issue waivers to firms that
significantly reduce oil imports from Iran, or if a waiver is in
the U.S. national interest or necessary for energy market
stability. Japan, Turkey and South Korea have already sought
The Sri Lankan foreign ministry declined to comment.
Sri Lanka's state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC)
pays for the island's crude via the largest bank in the country,
the state-run Bank of Ceylon, two sources with direct knowledge
of the payments said. The central bank declined to comment on
The payments are processed through the Tehran-based Asian
Clearing Union (ACU), a nine-nation trade clearinghouse set up
by the United Nations in 1974 to facilitate trade in South Asia.
It allows central banks to settle transactions on behalf of
However, the ACU has come under increased scrutiny from
Washington, which argues it can interfere with its ability to
track funds going into Iran.
India's central bank said late last year that payments to
Iran can no longer be settled via the ACU.
Like Indian crude importers, Sri Lanka's petroleum ministry
is looking for other sources, but unlike most other buyers is
limited in its options.
China, India and Japan are the biggest importers of Iranian
crude, buying between five times and 10 times more barrels than
Sri Lanka. But the imports are only a small portion of their
overall crude purchases, so it easier for them to mix other
crude oils in their feedstock.
The Italian-built Sapugaskanda refinery can process crudes
similar to Iranian light, like Abu Dhabi's Upper Zakum and Saudi
Arabia's Arabian Light.
But in the past, non-Iranian crude has never made up more
than 20 percent of the total annually, Premajayantha said.
Underscoring Sri Lanka's close ties with Tehran, Iran had
proposed a $2 billion refinery upgrade, but the plan fell
through last year.
Premajayantha said Sri Lanka will continue to import from
Iran and is looking at changes to payment modes, following the
lead of other Asian nations.
"Even India and China import oil from Iran and still they
import and pay. If there is an issue they (Iran) will inform us
that this is the mode they are going to introduce," he said.
Premajayantha is discussing a new supply deal with Oman, two
sources with direct knowledge of government negotiations said.
The minister declined to confirm the talks.
Sri Lanka is also considering buying Iranian crude through a
Middle East intermediary, or possibly via a Chinese company that
would then convert the cost of imports to a long-term loan or
other financing facility, three officials from the central bank
and petroleum ministry said. They spoke on condition of
Sri Lanka presently enjoys a four-month credit facility from
Iran for crude imports.
"We know how much oil we are importing, we have to see what
are the options available to us, examine that and take a call
where to pitch our line and then only we will take a decision,"
Cabraal, the central bank governor, said.
(Writing and additional reporting by Bryson Hull; Editing by