* China crude imports from Iran hit 558,865 bpd in July
* China Jan-July imports from Iran at 617,670 bpd, up 47 pct (Adds detail on imports and background)
By Adam Rose
BEIJING, Aug 21 (Reuters) - China’s crude imports from Iran expanded 40.6 percent in July from a year ago, customs data showed on Thursday, as Tehran’s largest oil client stayed with the elevated shipment levels that began late last year.
China began stepping up purchases from the OPEC member after a preliminary nuclear deal in November of last year eased some sanctions on Iran. China has been making up the main portion of Asia’s higher Iranian oil imports since then.
Top state refiner Sinopec Corp has been lifting more Iranian oil this year partly because it is cheaper versus similar grades from Saudi Arabia, industry officials have told Reuters.
Higher imports of condensate, a light crude oil from Iran’s South Pars gas project, have also contributed to strong intake figures. China counts condensate as crude oil.
Iran has started taking action to comply with the terms of an extended agreement with six world powers over its disputed atomic activities, a U.N. nuclear watchdog report obtained by Reuters on Wednesday showed.
The findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency may be seen as positive by the West ahead of the expected resumption next month of negotiations on ending the decade-old nuclear dispute.
China’s July imports from Iran came in at 2.37 million tonnes, or 558,865 barrels per day (bpd), rising 5 percent from 531,200 bpd in June, official customs data showed on Thursday.
Imports from Iran over January-July were 617,670 bpd, up 47 percent compared with 420,263 bpd a year ago.
China’s imports from Iran spiked to a record in April and remained high in May. July’s figures are on par with other months since last December, still near the pre-2012 levels seen before tougher Western sanctions were imposed.
Iran’s overall crude oil exports dropped in July for the second month in a row after a spike in May, yet sales were still slightly above the 1 million bpd allowed by the November deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme, according to sources who track tanker movements.
Iran ranks No.3 among China’s top suppliers, according to customs, with growth in the January-July period the fastest among China’s top suppliers, outpacing that of Iraq, Oman, Angola, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Editing by Tom Hogue