Exclusive: Iran crude exports hit two-year high, up more than 20 percent for Jan-Feb

TOKYO (Reuters) - Iran’s oil exports are on set to rise more than a fifth in January and February from last year’s daily average, data from a source with knowledge of its loading schedules shows, revealing how Tehran is ramping up sales after the lifting of sanctions.

Malta-flagged Iranian crude oil supertanker "Delvar" is seen anchored off Singapore in this March 1, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Tim Chong/Files

The data is the first sign of a resurgence in crude shipments as the OPEC producer begins to raise output and clears out oil that has built up in offshore storage over the past four years of curtailed participation in world markets.

The market is closely watching the pace of Iran’s return to the market after sanctions were removed earlier this month, given a global glut in supplies that has pulled prices down 70 percent since mid-2014. Hopes that other top producers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia could cooperate with OPEC to contain production have lifted prices this week.

The Islamic republic’s overall exports will total around 1.44 million barrels a day (bpd) in February and about 1.5 million bpd in January, according to the data on Iran’s preliminary tanker loading schedules.

Those shipping levels would be more than 20 percent higher than Iran’s average daily exports last year, with the loadings this month at the highest since February 2014.

The increased shipments add to an oil surplus that analysts have estimated at around 1 million bpd. Official figures, based on oil arrival data from Iran’s buyers, will not be available for January until mid-February and for February until mid-March.

"It was expected that Iran would increase their exports as quickly as possible," said Tony Nunan, a Mitsubishi Corp 8058.T risk manager. "Physically they can do it because they have so much availability in floating storage."

Much of the nearly 40 million barrels of oil stored by Iran in domestic tankers is condensate - an ultra light grade of crude - shipping sources have said, and the faster the light crude is moved out the quicker the ships can be used for more oil deliveries.

Iran’s shipments have surged nearly a quarter over the last four weeks from average tanker loadings of 1.21 million bpd last year following the lifting of sanctions earlier this month, according to the source’s data.

Responding to Tehran’s compliance with a nuclear deal, the United States and major powers this month revoked sanctions that had cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half from their pre-sanctions 2011 peak of around 3 million bpd.

An Iranian source has said the country is targeting India, Asia’s fastest-growing oil market, as its main destination for oil, which was backed by the shipping schedules.

India will load more than 300,000 bpd in February, up from 183,000 bpd in January, according to the data.

“Why not? Nothing stops us. Definitely it should go up. It has to go up,” said an Indian oil ministry official, speaking to Reuters earlier this month about the end of sanctions on Iran.

After the sanctions were lifted, Iran ordered a 500,000 bpd increase in crude output, of which it hopes 200,000 bpd will go to Europe. But sales to European buyers are likely to be higher only when foreign tanker owners resolve issues over securing insurance for cargoes.

Exports to Asia in February are set to total 1.20 million bpd, holding near to an expected nine-month high of 1.24 million bpd for January.

Iran plans to load 504,000 bpd for top customer China in February, down 5 percent from a six-month high expected in January, according to the source.

Iran is planning to load 303,000 bpd next month for India, up 66 percent from the month before and highest since May 2015.

Shipments to Japan and South Korea are expected to be lower in February after hitting multi-month highs in January.

Reporting by Osamu Tsukimori and Aaron Sheldrick; Additional reporting by Nidhi Verma in NEW DELHI; Editing by Tom Hogue