* Iran crude shipments fall two straight months, March and
* China crude loadings jump to 552,000 bpd in April, up 33
pct on yr
* Japan loads no oil in March, S.Korea takes none in April
By Osamu Tsukimori and Florence Tan
TOKYO/SINGAPORE, April 17 Iran's crude oil
exports fell for the first time in five months in March, and are
slated to drop further in April, moving closer to the levels
stipulated by November's temporary nuclear deal that eased some
sanctions on Tehran.
Under the agreement reached in Geneva, Iran's oil exports
were to remain at an average 1 million barrels per day (bpd) for
the six months to July 20, but since the signing last year,
shipments to Asia alone had topped that mark until this month.
The drop in crude exports to just over 1 million bpd in
March and to 953,000 bpd for April, according to ship loading
data seen by Reuters, reduces pressure on Tehran ahead of talks
next month to finalise an end to the decade-old nuclear dispute.
The drops have come mainly because Japan did not take any
cargoes in March and South Korea is not scheduled to take any
shipments in April, according to the tanker data.
"When the Iranian exports increased, the market noticed so
I'm not surprised that they might try to cut back some in the
upcoming period," IHS oil consultant Victor Shum said.
"As far as China is concerned, the offtake is a bit higher,
but it goes up and down, so on average, for the year, China will
keep it under the target," he said.
Iran's biggest customer China will increase loadings this
month to 552,000 bpd, about a third higher than a year ago,
after a decline in March to 458,000 bpd.
Chinese buyers will account for almost 60 percent of oil
shipped by tanker from Iran in April.
Crude going to India, Tehran's No.2 customer, surged nearly
43 percent in the first quarter of 2014, bringing a warning from
the United States that it needed to hold the shipments closer to
end-2013 levels of 195,000 bpd.
India is scheduled to load in April about 145,000 bpd of
Iranian crude, down from imports of 412,000 bpd in January.
It's not immediately clear if the reductions in Japan, India
and South Korea are a response to pressure to hold to the terms
of the temporary nuclear agreement, or if they are related to a
seasonal drop in imports because of refinery maintenance.
Tehran denies that its atomic energy programme is a front
for developing nuclear weapons, and says it seeks only
electricity from its enrichment of uranium.
In the second half of the last decade Iran was pumping
around 4 million bpd, but tough international sanctions the past
two years have slashed the country's oil production and exports.
The temporary deal between Iran and world powers, struck in
November and implemented on Jan. 20, also freed up $4.2 billion
in back oil payments to Tehran in return for curbs on its
Negotiators from Iran and the United States, Russia, China,
Britain, France and Germany, known as P5-plus-one, will begin
their next round of talks in the Austrian capital on May 13.
Seasonal maintenance plans may explain why Japan and South
Korea area are loading less oil from Iran, Shum said.
"Q1 may be still part of the winter season and there is a
bit of a peak in demand, but in Q2 typically the crude demand
starts to come down with the spring maintenance," he said.
Buyers from Japan may also have held off from loadings amid
uncertainty over whether Tokyo would roll over a sovereign
insurance scheme to cover oil shipments after commercial
insurers complied with an EU ban on coverage for Iranian oil.
Iran's oil exports, including condensate, totalled 1.25
million bpd in March, down 19 percent from 1.55 million bpd in
February. They are set to fall almost 5 percent further in April
to 1.19 million bpd, according to the loading data.
Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency had
pegged Iran's crude shipments in February at 1.65 million bpd -
including condensate - the highest since June 2012.
Iran's deputy oil minister for international trade said on
Monday that the Islamic republic's oil exports had held at
around 1 million bpd for the last six months.
South Korea loaded 129,000 bpd last month compared with
217,000 bpd in February and will load no crude during April,
according to the tanker data obtained by Reuters.
Japan, the other of Iran's four biggest buyers, didn't load
crude in March, but Japanese tankers are scheduled to pick up
146,000 bpd this month, compared with 119,000 bpd in February.
Turkey is the other main destination for loadings in March
and April. Since sanctions were imposed in 2012, more than
halving Iran's oil sales, China, India, South Korea, Japan and
Turkey have bought nearly all of Tehran's crude exports.
(Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Tom Hogue)