DUBAI Oct 18 Iranian gasoline imports have slumped by as much as 95 percent over the last four years, according to official government data, as rising refinery capacity and lower fuel subsidies help neutralize western sanctions aimed at starving Tehran of fuel.
Iran's inadequate refinery infrastructure and rampant internal demand intensified Iran's gasoline import dependency until 2007 -- a vulnerability that western governments have targeted by blocking fuel supplies to pressure Tehran over its disputed nuclear programme.
But gasoline imports have fallen from 204,000 barrels per day (bpd), or 32.47 million litres a day in June 2007 to at least a 10-year low of 10,000 bpd (1.59 million litres) in June 2011, according to Joint Data Initiative (Jodi) figures, while seasonal peak imports were down nearly 70 percent in January 2011 from highs of 244,000 bpd in January 2007.
Thanks to fuel rationing, a four-fold pump price hike and Iran's increasing ability to refine its own oil, the share of imports in Iran's gasoline supplies has dipped from around 40 percent a few years ago to less than 5 percent, putting pressure on Washington and Brussels to find new ways to squeeze Tehran economically.
"The enemies planned to push the country toward crisis and difficulties by halting sale of gasoline but the oil industry staff ... through relentless efforts, could raise production of gasoline to prove they can offset sanctions easily," Iran's oil minister, Rostam Qasemi, was quoted by oil ministry website Shana as saying on Sunday.
According to the Iranian government, Iran's daily gasoline consumption has fallen from around 76 million liters in 2006 to around 60 million liters a day (376,931 bpd) in early October 2011, despite the number of vehicles doubling over the period.
"Despite increasing the number of vehicles of the country ... gasoline consumption has fallen considerably," Shana quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying on national television in early October, adding that had he not slashed subsidies daily gasoline consumption could now be around 127 million liters.
Iran insists its nuclear plans are purely about energy but many governments suspect they include a covert nuclear weapons programme and have tried to starve Tehran of funds and equipment needed to develop it.
With the impact of gasoline supply restrictions weakening over the last few years, Washington, which has long since banned all U.S. companies from any Iranian oil deals, has increasingly tried to stem the flow of crude oil sales funds to Tehran.
Western powers tightened restrictions on oil and gas trade with Iran in mid-2010 and scared off many of Iran's gasoline suppliers, but some fuel still slips through from Asia which also still buys large volumes of Iranian crude.
Iran's imports of gas oil and diesel oil also fell by about 27 percent from November 2008 peaks of 80,000 bpd to 58,000 bpd in November 2010, Jodi data shows.
But is still not exporting any diesel or gasoline according to Iranian government data available through the Jodi transparency initiative. (Editing by William Hardy)