* February Iran oil output same as January
* May keep supply steady for month or two, says analyst
* Iran seeks new oil customers (updates throughout)
By Amena Bakr
DUBAI, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Iran said on Thursday it has maintained oil production levels despite sanctions, but oil experts said they suspected Tehran was storing crude at sea while looking for new customers to evade Western measures aimed at slowing its nuclear programe.
Iran’s OPEC governor said oil output in February was steady at around 3.5 million barrels per day, the same as in January.
“The production for this month will be the same as the previous, around 3.5 (million),” said Mohammad Ali Khatibi, Iran’s representative on the board of governors of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Oil analysts said the assessment looked accurate.
“We don’t see decreasing Iranian volumes this month,” said one industry consultant who tracks Iran’s oil output. “I think the view that production is falling is simply based on assumptions that the sanctions are already restricting export volumes. Although it is having an impact on their operations, we don’t see a decrease in exports.”
European buyers have cut back on purchases from Iran ahead of an EU embargo on Iran’s oil imports effective July 1. Some of Iran’s biggest customers in Asia including China have also reduced purchases. .
The United States has tightened financial sanctions on Tehran, making it increasingly tricky for buyers of Iranian crude to process payments back to Tehran. The West is seeking to slow Iran’s progress towards what it fears is a nuclear weapons capability.
Oil output from OPEC’s No.2 producer is down 5 percent from February 2010 when the Islamic Republic produced 3.7 million bpd, according to Reuters data.
But supply over the past six months is stable, contrary to expectations among some industry watchers that Iran would have to slash production as customers chose to find alternative supplies because of sanctions.
How long Tehran can keep pumping at full throttle is unclear.
“The (Khatibi) statement signals they are storing crude but they cannot do this for very long. They could probably do it this month and next but then if they are still not able to sell, they will have to cut production,” said David Wech from energy consultancy JBC in Vienna.
JBC says Iran’s output has fallen over the last two years by more than 250,000 bpd, 6.6 percent, because of a lack of investment and could decline 300,000 bpd this year and a further 200,000 bpd in 2013.
“It is not just fresh oil sanctions that are hurting. It is also sanctions on equipment and investments that have been in place for years, which are beginning to have a toll on their maturing fields,” said Wech.
Khatibi said Iran had no problem selling its oil.
“We still have customers, everything is normal,” he said.
China, India and Japan, the top three buyers of Iranian oil, together buy about 45 percent of Iran’s crude exports and are slicing purchases by about 10 percent.
Turkey, which buys nearly 40 percent of its crude oil from Iran, has so far been a loyal customer and is likely to stick with Iranian oil..
Selling all its oil is likely to get more difficult for Iran.
Citing industry estimates, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that up to 1 million bpd of Iran’s 2.6 million bpd of exports could be replaced by alternative supplies once EU sanctions begin in July.
Traders expect Iran to seek to maintain exports through discounts and barter.
“Iran will try hard but the Americans are watching very carefully what goes where. There will be sporadic cargoes here and there but it is impossible to dodge sanctions with very large volumes,” said a trader with a big European trading house.
The first sign that Iran is holding more oil than normal at sea came on Thursday. Iranian supertanker The Delvar anchored off Karimun Island, an Indonesian island in the Singapore Strait, Reuters shipping data showed.
And data from broker ICAP shipping shows Iran is also now storing crude oil on two very large crude carriers in long term storage.
additional reporting Dmitry Zhdannikov, Alex Lawler and Jonathan Saul; Editing by Richard Mably