* Bigger fleet gives Iran more sea storage options
* NITC seen facing trade heat due to sanctions
By Jonathan Saul
LONDON, Aug 6 Iran has taken delivery of several
new oil tankers in recent weeks as it relies more on its own
fleet capacity to help sustain crude export shipments in the
face of western sanctions.
Existing U.S. and EU measures have already reduced Iran's
oil exports by more than half from pre-sanction levels of about
2.2 million barrels per day (bpd), costing the Islamic Republic
billions of dollars in lost revenue a month.
Foreign shipping companies, fearing a loss of western
business, have refused to do business with Iran, putting the
onus on its main tanker operator, NITC.
Data from publisher IHS Maritime shows that four
supertankers, each with a maximum carrying capacity of 2 million
barrels, joined NITC's fleet between May and the end of July.
Another three entered service with NITC earlier this year.
"Iran needs those ships, especially as there are so few
owners now who want to be seen transporting Iranian oil," said
an oil tanker market source, who confirmed the deliveries.
"Having more tankers gives Iran more flexibility to store
oil at sea and trade. They need to keep their oil fields running
and get cargoes out somehow."
NITC officials did not respond to requests for comment.
All the vessels were part of a $1.2 billion order agreed in
2009 with two Chinese shipyards for 12 new supertankers.
The latest additions boost NITC's supertanker fleet to 37
vessels with a maximum carrying capacity of 64 million barrels.
It also has 14 small crude oil tankers with another 12.5 million
barrels in capacity.
"NITC has had to operate in a parallel world to stay ahead
of the heat they face. It must be getting harder logistically
for them to manage their shipment schedules," another tanker
market source said.
NITC is blacklisted by the West and has used various tactics
to dodge attention including changing the names of its tankers
and their flags as well as carrying out ship-to-ship oil
transfers onto non-Iranian vessels to conceal sales, trade and
maritime intelligence sources say.
China remains Iran's top oil client. Sanctions have pushed
other buyers to reduce contract volumes, which could leave Iran
with surplus crude.
IHS Maritime estimated that at least eight to 10 NITC
supertankers are storing Iranian oil at the moment, broadly
unchanged since May. Up to another six tankers could also be
providing storage, it said.
"Some of the tankers have switched their AIS trackers off
for a long period, so they are effectively lost from being
tracked," said Richard Hurley, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime.
NEW SANCTIONS THREAT
The tankers are located at anchorages adjacent to key oil
terminals, "which is useful for storage", he said.
"We are seeing the core of that fleet being there for two to
three months and some of them for even longer."
Other shipping sources gave estimates that 10 to 13 Iranian
VLCCs are being used for floating storage.
NITC also has been hit by sanctions on ship insurance, which
could limit any benefit from increasing its fleet.
Tehran recently offered to underwrite insurance for vessels
- amounting to $1 billion per incident - to keep oil exports to
But European industry sources say it is unclear how the
Iranians could pay any claims, because sanctions prevent banks
from channelling cash out of the country.
"$1 billion is not something that you can get at that
quickly," said Hugo Wynn-Williams, chairman of leading transport
insurance group Thomas Miller. "I remain sceptical."
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill
that would cut Iran's oil exports by another 1 million barrels
per day over a year to nearly zero. The bill still must pass the
Senate and be signed by President Barack Obama to become law.
"Additional sanctions on Iranian oil would force Iran to
place even greater reliance both on its domestic fleet and
financial industry including insuring its own tankers," said
Mehdi Varzi, a former official at the state-run National Iranian
Oil Co, who now runs an energy consultancy in the UK.
"Iran is surviving rather than thriving."
(editing by Jane Baird)