Asian buyers imported less than 1 million barrels per day of Iranian crude for the first time this year in August as China's buys hit the lowest since the easing of Western sanctions, although intake was still up 6.4 percent from a year ago, Reuters reported Sept. 30.
Six world powers have been trying to overcome significant disagreements with Iran in the more-than-decade-long nuclear standoff that led to tough sanctions being imposed on Tehran in 2012, cutting its crude exports by more than half.
Sanctions were eased this year as work began on reaching a final resolution to the dispute, but Iranian and Western diplomats said on Friday that major differences remain with just eight weeks to go before a Nov. 24 deadline.
Officials from Iran and the six countries had cautioned ahead of this month's talks in New York that a breakthrough was unlikely to end the sanctions, although they had hoped that substantial progress could be made in narrowing disagreements.
"I hear that the final agreement looks difficult," said Ken Hasegawa, a commodity sales manager at Newedge Japan, although adding that Iran's exports to Asia might be little changed even if no final deal was reached.
"Unless Iran engages in something that would incur a penalty, I do not think that they're going to put a tighter squeeze on Iran," Hasegawa said.
The interim agreement between Iran and world powers that went into effect in January allowed Tehran to keep exports at the reduced level of about 1 million barrels per day (bpd).
Imports by Iran's four major clients in Asia topped that mark in each of the first seven months of the year, rising to as much as 1.37 million bpd in February, although there has not been any apparent crackdown on the higher volumes.
Iran's biggest buyers - China, India, Japan and South Korea - together in August took in 921,064 bpd of the Islamic republic's crude, down 10.5 percent from a seven-month low hit in July and the lowest since last October, government and tanker-tracking data showed.
For the first eight months of 2014, the four buyers' imports averaged 1.15 million bpd, up 23.6 percent from the same period last year.
INDIA, SOUTH KOREA AUGUST IMPORTS JUMP
Top buyer China's imports from Tehran for the January-August period were at 578,630 bpd, up 37 percent on year.
China and India together have accounted for this year's strong Asian intake, offsetting lower year-to-date imports by South Korea and Japan.
For August, China's imports from Iran fell 28.6 percent to 311,653 bpd, its lowest level in 10 months and marking the first year-on-year decline in eight months as at least one regular buyer went through a planned overhaul.
"With regards to China, politics is not seen as a factor behind the decline. Its imports will return to the robust levels of earlier this year once maintenance is over," Newedge's Hasegawa said.
Surging imports from India and South Korea in August compared with a year ago helped to offset the China drop.
India's imports in August jumped 81.2 percent from last year to 273,500 bpd, and over January-August, India's imports rose 49.5 percent to 271,000 bpd.
South Korea's imports from Iran last month more than doubled from a year ago to 134,419 bpd, while its shipments for the January-August period were down 8 percent from last year to 127,944 bpd.
Shipments to Japan - the last of the four to report its oil intake - fell by 6.2 percent to 201,492 bpd last month, trade ministry data showed on Tuesday. For the year through August, Japan's imports fell 9.2 percent from a year ago to 170,518 bpd.