* China’s Jan Iran imports 564,536 bpd, up 82 pct y/y, 11.2 pct m/m
* China import surge partly due to distortions ahead of holiday
* India Jan shipments highest since Feb 2012 at 412,000 bpd
* Asian Iran oil buys top 1 mln bpd (Recasts, adds comments)
By Nidhi Verma and Judy Hua
BEIJING/NEW DELHI, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Iran’s top two oil customers China and India have boosted imports in January, taking in close to the total volume the Islamic republic is permitted to sell to all buyers following the recent easing of sanctions.
The jumps indicate the OPEC member’s total sales in January to its four biggest buyers topped the 1 million barrels per day (bpd) level at which world powers want to keep shipments capped to maintain pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear programme.
Tough sanctions have more than halved the country’s oil exports since early 2012, costing Tehran billions of dollars in lost revenue every month.
Yet, last month’s rise may not signify a continuing flood of Iran’s oil as shipments may have risen due to one-off factors. India was able to take more because it earlier cut purchases the most among Tehran’s top clients; China’s jump was partly linked to distortions in the data ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
“I don’t expect to see shipments to Asia rising back to pre-sanctions levels soon,” said Alex Yap, energy consultant at FGE Singapore. “It’s premature to say given the ongoing negotiations, but I don’t think Iran can come back until a further political deal is reached.”
Six world powers and Iran made a “good start” in talks in Vienna towards reaching a final settlement in the decade-old stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear programme, but conceded their plan to get a deal in the coming months was very ambitious.
An earlier agreement in November allows the OPEC member to keep exports at the current reduced levels of about 1 million bpd, less than half the pre-sanctions level.
The Geneva deal also exempts buyers of Iranian oil - most of whom are based in Asia - from continually reducing purchases to win sanction waivers every six months from the United States.
January’s rise in shipments is in line with data on Iran’s exports showing shipments rose three months in a row to close to 1.2 million bpd in January, according to sources who track tanker movements.
China, Iran’s largest oil client, imported 564,536 bpd of the crude last month, up 82 percent versus the same month last year, data from the General Administration of Customs showed on Friday.
That jump - partly linked to data distortions as companies tend to book cargoes in advance of the week-long holiday that began on Jan. 31 this year - brought imports back to levels before Western sanctions were applied more than two years ago.
The January imports from Iran were 11.2 percent higher than December’s 507,707 bpd.
For 2014, China may buy more Iranian oil as state-run trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp is negotiating a new condensate contract, Reuters has reported.
India’s imports from Iran more than doubled in January compared with a month earlier, hitting their highest since February 2012, with one state refiner returning from a three-month break as a buyer.
India’s oil purchase from Iran in January surged to 412,000 bpd, up from 189,100 bpd in December and 44 percent higher than a year ago, data compiled by Reuters showed.
The big jump last month brings India’s imports from Iran over April-January to about 201,000 bpd, still a decline of 26 percent from the same 10 months a year earlier.
That’s below a target of 220,000 bpd for the fiscal year that ends March 31, but if imports hold close to the January levels, earlier cuts could be wiped out.
Adding in South Korean imports in January of about 65,000 bpd, Asian buys from Iran have already topped 1 million bpd, with Japan’s data not due for another week.
Asian buyers - China, India, Japan and South Korea - together cut their purchases of Iranian crude by 15 percent in 2013 to an average of 935,862 bpd in 2013.
“On an operational level - shipping, payments, insurance and other logistics - it has become easier for these countries to import Iranian crude following the recent easing of sanctions,” FGE Singapore’s Yap said.
“But the United States still intends to put pressure on these countries to limit imports.”
Additional reporting by Fayen Wong in SHANGHAI and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in SINGAPORE; Writing by Manash Goswami; Editing by Ed Davies and Tom Hogue