(Correction removes incorect reference in 9th para to Iran
making weapons-grade uranium)
TOKYO, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Iran's crude exports are set to
drop by about a quarter in December from the preceding month to
the lowest level since tough sanctions were applied this year,
shipping sources said, as the OPEC-member comes under pressure
to curb its nuclear programme.
Oil shipments by Iran have more than halved in 2012 due to
U.S. and European sanctions on its oil trade, straining Tehran's
finances, pressuring its currency and igniting inflation.
While the exact reasons for December's sharp drop are not
clear, sources in China said Iran may be struggling to find
enough tankers to ship the crude as more and more are being used
to store unsold oil.
Most of the crude is scheduled to head to energy hungry
Asian buyers -- China, India, Japan and South Korea -- with the
drop in December shipments from November representing a loss of
about $800 million for Iran at current oil prices.
China, Iran's top trading partner, is expected to drive the
cut by lifting its lowest volume of the year, said the sources,
who declined to be identified because of policies on talking to
Iran's customers, including Turkey, the only non-Asian
buyer, will lift 834,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude in
December compared with 1.08 million bpd in November, an industry
source with direct knowledge of Tehran's shipping plans said.
The numbers are preliminary and actual imports may vary.
The December number would make Iranian crude imports by
Asia's top buyers for the full year at about 1.06 million bpd,
down roughly a quarter from a year ago, Reuters calculations
The United States, which is due to decide this month on
whether to renew 180-day waivers from sanctions for importers of
Iranian oil, wants to see buyers progressively cut purchases.
Washington and other Western powers suspect Iran is trying
to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons under the
cover of a declared civilian atomic energy programme. Iran says
its uranium enrichment work is for peaceful energy only.
The architects of U.S. sanctions legislation, Democratic
Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk, have
urged the White House to require oil importers to reduce
purchases by 18 percent or more to qualify for further
China's imports from Iran are down 22 percent on the year to
426,000 bpd in January-October, the months for which official
data is available.
South Korea has reduced purchases 39 percent to 148,000 bpd
and Japan 41 percent to 188,000 bpd over the same period. In
contrast, India has raised imports to 328,000 bpd, up 7 percent.
Of Iran's top four clients in Asia, Japan has already
secured a renewal of its exemption while exemptions for India,
South Korea and China are due to be decided this month.
Market nerves over the impact of sanctions on supply pushed
Brent crude futures to a high of $128 a barrel in March
and have kept the benchmark over $100 for most of this year.
Iranian exports took a deep hit from July once European
Union sanctions banning insurance cover for ships carrying
Iranian oil came into force. Shipments recovered in October to
1.3 million bpd from 1.0 million seen in the two previous
months, the International Energy Agency said.
December loading by China is put at about 242,000 bpd, the
lowest this year. Including November's estimated 382,000 bpd,
the average rate for the two months would be around 312,000 bpd,
nearly 25 percent below the January-October rate of 424,000 bpd.
China, India and South Korea are asking Iran to ship the oil
because they are unable to secure insurance cover on tankers,
but delivery has often been delayed as the Iranian fleet is
stretched with many tankers being used as floating storage.
"It is still the same problem, but one that is getting
worse," said a Chinese buyer of Iranian oil. "The journey
between Iran and China has in some cases been stretched to 60
days from the previous 40 days."
India's loading for December is estimated at 119,400 bpd
compared with 275,000 bpd in November.
Japanese refiners are set to load about 186,000 bpd in
December, up around 21 percent from 154,000 bpd, and all the
cargoes are due to reach in January, industry sources said.
The rise in December loading reflects Japan's increase in
Iranian crude purchases during the winter due to higher demand
for heating. Since it won its first waiver from U.S. sanctions
in March, Japan has cut imports each month by more than a
quarter except for an increase of 6.8 percent in June.
South Korea's loadings in November and December will be
around 200,000 bpd, in line with its commitment to lift under
annual contracts. It became the first major Asian consumer of
Iranian crude to announce a halt in imports due to the EU ban.
Seoul imported no crude oil from Iran in August and purchases
resumed in September.
Taiwan's Formosa is scheduled to lift about 61,000 bpd in
December, after the island completely halted imports from April.
Taiwan's Iranian imports averaged 30,250 bpd in 2011.
(Additional reporting by Meeyoung Cho in Seoul, Aizhu Chen in
Beijing, Florence Tan in Singapore and Nidhi Verma in New Delhi;
Writing by Manash Goswami; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Ralph