* Top four buyers take 1.15 mln bpd of Iranian crude in
* Tanker data shows Asia's Iran imports dropping further
over coming months
* Lower crude exports from Iran could add to support for oil
By Osamu Tsukimori
TOKYO, April 30 Iran's top oil clients cut their
March imports 16.4 percent from the previous month's two-year
high and look set to reduce their shipments further over coming
months, bringing the volumes closer in line with the deal easing
sanctions on Tehran.
Under the November agreement that took effect in January,
Iran's oil shipments were to remain at an average 1 million
barrels per day (bpd) for the six months to July 20, although
Asian imports alone have averaged more than that this year.
But after Asian imports of Iranian oil hit their highest
since early 2012 in February, arrivals have started to fall,
with tanker loading schedules showing that intakes over the next
two months can be expected to come closer to the deal's mark.
In March, Iran's top four clients - China, India, Japan and
South Korea - imported 1.15 million bpd of Iranian crude and
condensate, down from 1.37 million bpd in February, according to
official data and tanker arrival schedules given to Reuters.
"The decrease is probably not due to pressure from the West
but this should have more to do with (a fall) in actual demand
as refineries enter maintenance," said Ken Hasegawa, a commodity
sales manager at brokerage Newedge Japan.
The United States privately warned India earlier that it
needed to hold its Iran oil buys to end-2013 levels, but there
have been few signs of pressure on other buyers of the oil.
Many Asian refiners target the March-May period for plant
maintenance, as consumer demand dips between peak winter and
summer use, and overall crude imports usually drop off.
On Tuesday, in a possible sign of greater pressure to come
on sanctions busters, the United States announced charges
against a Chinese businessman for violating sanctions laws on
Iran. The U.S. Treasury also said it was sanctioning a
Dubai-based entity for helping others to evade measures to limit
Iran's oil sales.
The Obama administration has said it believes that Iran's
oil sales will fall in coming months and average 1 million bpd
over the entire six-month period to July 20.
Asian buyers' crude imports from Iran in February were the
highest since January 2012 as refiners took in more crude to
replace stocks depleted by winter demand.
And while Iran's rising exports over the last few months
have helped cap oil prices boosted by supply concerns in Libya
and the escalating crisis in Ukraine, the expected cutbacks in
exports in the coming months should now give added support to
benchmark Brent prices.
Tanker loading schedules seen earlier by Reuters have
indicated that the import volumes can be expected to fall for
the next couple of months, with Japan receiving little or no oil
in April and South Korea importing little to none in May.
In March, Iran's top four oil clients still imported 14.7
percent more than in the same month last year, while imports of
Iranian crude in the first quarter at 1.25 million bpd were up
18 percent from a year ago.
India's imports last month more than doubled from a year ago
to 387,000 bpd, despite the earlier U.S. warning for it to keep
its Iran imports at end-2013 levels of about 195,000 bpd.
Iran's biggest oil customer, China, lifted its imports by
36.1 percent from a year ago to 555,182 bpd in March, while
South Korea's crude imports fell 50.6 percent to 64,065 bpd.
Iranian imports by Japan - which was the last of the four to
report its oil intake - fell 50.7 percent to 139,476 bpd last
month, trade ministry data showed on Wednesday.
The United States and the European Union toughened sanctions
on Tehran in early 2012 in an effort to force it to end its
nuclear programme, slashing the Islamic republic's oil exports
by more than half and costing it billions a month in revenue.
After an interim deal was reached in November last year,
Tehran agreed to curtail its uranium enrichment programme in
exchange for an easing of sanctions, including the repatriation
of some $4.2 billion in frozen oil funds.
Negotiators from Iran and the United States, Russia, China,
Britain, France and Germany, known as P5-plus-one, will begin a
round of talks in Vienna next month to finalise an end to the
decade-old nuclear dispute.
(Additional reporting by James Topham; Editing by Tom Hogue)