SINGAPORE/SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's Samsung Total Petrochemicals Co has revived a contract to buy Iranian oil after a year's hiatus, as thin margins in plastics make the cheap fuel from Iran hard to resist, people familiar with the deal said on Friday.
Stringent U.S. and European sanctions aimed at reducing Iran's oil income and forcing Tehran to curb its nuclear program have made shipping and paying for the oil hard, halving the Islamic Republic's crude exports.
The deal is a rare example of a buyer returning to the market for Iranian oil despite the obstacles arising from sanctions and efforts by Western powers to stem the flow.
After jarring interruptions in exports from Iran last year that included a halt in shipments to top consumers Japan and South Korea, importers have found ways to keep oil flowing without violating sanctions.
The allure of cheap oil and improved margins has made it worthwhile for the South Korean joint venture between two big international firms to find ways around difficulties.
The deal may save Samsung Total as much as $6.7 million in costs, according to Reuters calculations.
"The deal can be easily understood if you look at Samsung Total's financial situation," according to a government source in Seoul with direct knowledge of the matter.
The company is a joint venture between South Korea's Samsung Group and French energy giant Total.
Spokespeople at Total, Samsung Total and the Samsung Group declined to comment.
Samsung Total stopped importing oil from Iran last year as the U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions to halt a nuclear program the West suspects Iran may be using to develop arms. Tehran denies this. To comply with U.S. sanctions, importing countries are required to reduce purchases of Iranian oil.
Co-owner Total also stopped buying Iranian oil for its refineries to comply with EU sanctions last year.
Replacing the Iranian oil forced up Samsung Total's input costs, contributing to a fall in operating profits, sources said. Those profits fell 90 percent in the second-quarter of 2012, according to the company's regulatory filings. The company switched to more expensive Australian and Russian condensate last year, sources said.
Samsung Total had an annual contract to buy about 550,000 barrels a month of Kangan condensate until June last year, although it is unclear if it actually imported the full volume during the first half of 2012. The volume of the new contract is unclear.
JOSTLING FOR IMPORTS
Other South Korean refiners will have to import less to make way for Samsung Total's new contract if Seoul is to comply with U.S. sanctions.
To renew six-month exceptions to sanctions granted by Washington, buyers of Iran's oil have to show continuous import cuts. South Korea's waiver is next due for review in May.
The north Asia nation slashed crude purchases from Iran 36 percent to 153,405 barrels per day (bpd) in 2012. If Samsung Total starts buying a similar-sized cargo every month, South Korea's imports from the OPEC member may rise by 10,000 bpd.
Condensate imports were not included when South Korean and U.S. officials discussed cuts in Iranian crude imports, the South Korean government official said. For talks due in May, it is unclear whether Iranian condensates would be included in the crude import data or whether it would be counted separately.
"The U.S. side may raise the issue with us when they next meet for talks if they spot higher imports of Iranian condensate," the official said. "In the talks with the United States last December, we only talked about a cut in Iranian crude oil imports. Iranian condensate was not discussed."
Samsung Total kicked off imports from Iran by buying 30,000 tonnes, or 280,000 barrels, of Kangan condensate, which will be delivered in March to the petrochemical company's plant in Daesan, the sources said.
Condensate is a light oil usually processed in a unit called a splitter to produce naphtha, to make petrochemicals.
Samsung Total is looking to diversify supply sources to feed expanded facilities. It is adding a new 140,000 bpd condensate splitter, due to start in August 2014. The company operates a 1 million tonne per year (tpy) ethylene cracker, a 90,000 bpd splitter and other petrochemical units in Daesan.
Kangan is usually priced $1 or $2 per barrel cheaper than one of the alternatives, which is condensate from Australia's North West Shelf (NWS), traders said. Without any additional discount, the price difference means the Kangan cargo for March cost anything between $280,000 and $560,000 less than NWS.
If Samsung Total buys a same-sized cargo as the one for March each month for a year, annual savings would be as much as $6.7 million.
The company's operating profits fell to 5.52 billion won ($5.16 million) in the second quarter of 2012 from 68.04 billion won a year earlier, the company said in a regulatory filing.