* China's Sinopec to buy more Iranian oil through to first
half of 2014
* Asia's top Iranian oil buyers to lift 1.25-1.3 mln bpd in
* Apart from China, others to keep imports steady at first
four months level
By Chen Aizhu and James Topham
BEIJING/TOKYO, June 11 China is set to take more
Iranian crude than it did before tough sanctions were put in
place in early 2012, as Asia's biggest refiner Sinopec Corp buys
more oil from the Middle East nation, sources with direct
knowledge of China's buying strategy said.
Western sanctions over the past few years had reduced Iran's
crude shipments to less than half and crippled its economy by
choking the flow of petrodollars. Some of those measures were
eased following a breakthrough diplomatic deal last November in
return for Tehran curtailing its nuclear programme.
Higher purchases by Chinese state refiner Sinopec
mean Iran's top clients - China, Japan, India and
South Korea - are expected to jointly import around 1.25
million-1.3 million barrels per day in the January-June period,
according to five industry and government sources with knowledge
of oil sourcing in these countries.
"Over the past two years Sinopec had reduced purchases. That
was purely because of sanctions," said an industry official with
knowledge of the refiner's supply plans. "Now that the pressure
is eased, they are making the most of it."
Asked to comment on imports of Iranian oil since late last
year through to the first half of 2014, Sinopec spokesman Lu
Dapeng said the firm's "crude purchases are made based on their
commercial requirement and the requirement for production."
Six major powers - the United States, Britain, Germany,
France, Russia and China - and Iran are trying to reach a final
settlement on Tehran's nuclear programme, although diplomats say
a July 20 deadline is likely to slip.
China is likely to import about the same volume of oil in
May and June as it did in the first four months of the year,
when it took on average of around 620,000 bpd compared with
pre-sanctions volumes of around 550,000 bpd.
The Asian giant's imports are also higher in part because
Dragon Aromatics, an independent petrochemicals producer based
in Fujian, signed a contract last year for South Pars
condensate, a light crude, with monthly purchases averaging at
some 80,000 bpd.
In addition, Sinopec is expected to continue lifting full
contracted volumes or more. China, Iran's biggest oil customer,
more than doubled its purchases in April from a year ago to a
record of nearly 800,000 bpd.
Sinopec's imports are done via its trading vehicle Unipec.
Unipect lifts around 265,000 bpd of Iranian oil under an 8-year
oil contract that will last through to end-2019.
The other three Asian buyers are expected to hold imports at
levels similar to the first four months, sources said.
Japan is likely to hold its imports steady at around 165,000
bpd compared with the 2013 average of 177,414 bpd.
In the first four months of the year, Japan bought 57,876
bpd of South Pars condensate, more than double the level a year
earlier, while it reduced purchases of Iranian Heavy and Forozan
Blend by nearly 40 percent in each case, a breakdown of the
Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) showed.
The significant increase of South Pars condensate volumes is
because the light crude from Iran is much cheaper than other
condensate grades, industry sources said.
South Pars condensate is offered at least $10 a barrel
cheaper than Qatar low sulphur condensate (LSC), Singapore-based
trade sources said.
South Korea, which imported 134,375 bpd of oil from Iran in
the first four months of the year, is also expected to retain
imports around the same level through June.
"I don't think there will be any change in the country's
Iranian oil import volumes for a while," a source at a
Seoul-based refiner which imports Iranian oil said.
India lifted 324,700 barrels from Iran in the first four
months of the year. The country's import plans for the first
half were not immediately clear, but it reduced purchases in
April and should continue to do so in coming months after
boosting first-quarter shipments.
(Additional reporting by Meeyoung Cho in SEOUL, Krishna Das in
NEW DELHI, Li Peng Seng in SINGAPORE; Writing by Manash Goswami;
Editing by Tom Hogue and Ed Davies)