Iran snags more European oil buyers in slog for market share

LONDON (Reuters) - Two European refiners are set to receive their first oil cargoes from Iran since international sanctions were lifted in January against the country, which is ramping up crude exports in a battle to take back market share.

Iran has pledged to increase production following sanctions lifting, and it declined to participate in a meeting on April 17 of producer group OPEC and non-member nations aimed at reaching a deal to freeze output to prop up prices. The talks collapsed.

Italy’s IPLOM booked a 1 million barrel cargo of Iranian crude that is sailing towards the country aboard the Poetic, industry sources told Reuters. It will be the first post-sanctions cargo to arrive in Italy.

Oil trading and shipping sources said Greek refiner Motor Oil Hellas would also receive its first post-sanctions delivery of Iranian crude aboard the Kriti Breeze, which loaded at Kharg Island on April 20.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Both refiners bought Iran’s oil before sanctions against the country’s nuclear program effectively halted its shipments to Europe, which had accounted for more than a third of its exports.

France’s Total, Spain’s Cepsa and Greece’s Hellenic Petroleum have booked Iranian crude for their European refineries this year.

Others, including Italy’s Saras and ENI, have expressed interest in buying. But exports have been much slower than Iran targeted due to struggles with shipping and insurance.

Iran’s exports peaked at just over 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2011, making it the second-largest exporter that year after Saudi Arabia. Its exports fell to a little more than 1 million bpd after tougher sanctions in 2012.

According to data from Energy Aspects, global imports of Iran’s crude rose in March to 1.90 million bpd, from 1.51 million bpd in February.

“Buyers are gradually finding ways to handle the issues with shipping insurance and banking transactions, which in the end are hurdles rather than insurmountable barriers,” said Richard Mallinson, an analyst with Energy Aspects.

“As more buyers join in we could see flows to Europe increase, which is certainly a goal for Iran.”

Mallinson noted though that most exports had come from inventories rather than output from oil fields, meaning Iran could struggle to sustain the levels as stocks drawn down.

A global excess of oil also means there is stiff competition for buyers.

Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou in Athens; editing by Susan Thomas