(Reuters) – Asian imports of Iranian crude fell 9.2 percent in March from a year ago as India bought no oil from the sanctions-hit country for the first time in at least a decade under U.S. pressure, offsetting a jump in purchases by Japan and South Korea.
Imports by Iran’s four biggest buyers – China, India, Japan and South Korea – totalled 1.04 million barrels per day (bpd) in March, government and tanker-tracking data showed.
On a monthly basis, however, imports were at a three-month high. South Korea and Japan roughly doubled purchases in March from a year ago, with Japanese imports hitting a two-year peak.
There are indications that purchases will pick up from April following the recent framework deal on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme between Tehran and world powers that could see sanctions on Iran eventually lifted if a more permanent pact is finalised by a June deadline.
Iran’s buyers are already renewing contacts and scouting the possibility of investment as well as negotiating more supplies ahead of an anticipated final nuclear deal.
Iran is also keen to recover market share lost under the U.S.-led sanctions that have curbed its exports to around 1 million bpd from 2.5 million bpd in 2011.
The signing of a final nuclear agreement will prompt the United Nations, European Union and United States to begin lifting sanctions on the Islamic Republic within days, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said.
However, the United States has warned importers of Iranian crude to go easy until a final deal is agreed.
“We understand that nobody wants to be last in line, everybody wants to be first in line, if the sanctions do get relieved,” said U.S. Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, who has been negotiating on behalf of the United States in the talks.
Diplomats are negotiating to fill the gaps in an April 2 framework agreement that would curb Iran’s nuclear programme, allaying Western fears it could develop an atomic bomb, in return for relief from international sanctions.
But until the final deal is reached on Tehran’s nuclear activities, of its four Asian buyers, only China is likely to increase imports, sources have said.
India in March halted oil imports from Iran under U.S. pressure to keep its shipments from Tehran within sanction limits.
Any deal over Iran’s nuclear programme that would phase out economic sanctions against Tehran is unlikely to flood world markets with more oil any time soon, according to former U.S. officials and Western diplomats.
Imports by Iran’s four biggest buyers fell 19 percent to 1.02 million bpd in the first quarter.