Asia increased its imports of Iranian oil by 25 percent in the first six months of the year, largely thanks to sharp spikes in purchases from China and India.
According to a Reuters investigation, which reviewed official customs data and tanker schedules, Iran’s four major oil customers–China, India, Japan and South Korea–imported 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of Iranian oil in the first half of 2014, compared to 961,236 bpd in the first six months of 2013.
Much of the increase can be attributed to China, which saw its imports of Iranian oil jumped 50 percent to 627,700 bpd in the first six months of this year. However, in the month of June China only imported 531,200 bpd of Iranian oil which– although a 38 percent increase year-on-year (YoY)– was down significantly from the 757,900 bpd China imported from Iran in May 2014. China’s oil imports from Iran during May were the second highest monthly total on record.
Between the months of January and June of this year, India’s oil imports from Iran increased by by a third YoY to 281,000 bpd. As The Diplomat reported earlier this month, Indian media outlets had previously claimed Delhi’s Iranian oil imports were down significantly.
However, as Ankit noted in that report, the figures provided by Indian media were slightly misleading because they compared India’s imports from the fiscal year ending in March 2014, to the previous fiscal year ending in March 2013. However, America and the EU significantly tightened sanctions against Iran starting in January 2013, and thus India’s imports for the FY ending in March 2013 were mostly comprised of time when the new sanctions were not in effect.
On a more positive note from the perspective of the U.S. and the E.U., South Korea and Japan both significantly decreased their oil imports from Iran during the first half of 2014. According to the Reuters investigation, South Korea imported 124,657 bpd from Iran during the first half of 2014, down 11 percent from a year earlier. Similarly, Japan imported 172,154 bpd of Iranian oil, a 7.4 percent decline from last year.
However, Japan’s June imports were up over 46 percent from the year before, while South Korea’s imports of Iranian oil were up more than 7 percent in the month of June. According to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, a senior U.S. diplomat discussed sanctions against Iran with South Korean officials this week during a meeting that largely focused on sanctions against Russia.
The 1.2 million bpd that the four Asian nations imported from Iran over the last six months exceeded the just over 1 million bpd of crude that Iran was allowed to export under the terms of the interim agreement Tehran signed with the P5+1 powers in November of last year. Iran also exports smaller amounts of crude to other nations like Turkey and Syria.
However, the Reuters report said that much of the surplus exports are in condensates, a light form of oil found in Iran’s South Pars field, that U.S. officials say falls outside the parameters of the sanctions. Iran reportedly exports roughly 250,000 bpd of condensate, 55 percent of which goes to China (Interestingly, the U.S. recently lifted a ban on exports of condensate, and is courting Asian nations as potential markets for it. In this search, Iranian condensates are major competition).
The condensates caveat is unlikely to prevent criticism of the Obama administration from Iran hawks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the United States. These hawks have long warned the interim agreement would provide an economic windfall for the much beleaguered Iranian regime.
The Obama administration has repeatedly denied this, however, and recently claimed that the economic relief Iran accrued from the sixth month interim agreement was actually less than expected. As a senior Treasury official told reporters on background earlier this month, under the six-month interim agreement, “Iran derived very little value from those sanctions’ suspension. We estimated the total value of the relief in the Joint Plan of Action would be in the neighborhood of $6 to 7 billion, and I think it has actually come in less than that.”
While hardly an economic windfall, the fact that Iran exported at least 200,000 bpd beyond the agreed upon limit during the first half of 2014 is likely to provide ammunition for the hawks’ case. Currently, many bills are circulating Capitol Hill that aim to restrict the Obama administration’s freedom to maneuver during the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations.