WASHINGTON - The United States gave China a six-month reprieve from Iran financial sanctions on Thursday, avoiding a diplomatic spat with a country whose support it needs to try to quell violence in Syria and rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

With Thursday's decision to grant exceptions to China, which buys up to a fifth of Iran's oil exports, and Singapore, which buys Iranian fuel oil, the Obama administration has now spared all 20 of Iran's major oil buyers from its unilateral sanctions.

The sanctions themselves are designed to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear program, which the West believes aims to develop nuclear weapons but which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity and medical isotopes.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said both China and Singapore earned the reprieve by cutting imports of Iranian crude and argued the reductions by all 20 countries showed that Iran was paying a high price for its nuclear program.

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