Iranian women protest against US President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Iranian women protest against US President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Singapore — The world’s top oil buyers are discovering that US sanctions on Iran will squeeze their trade flows whether they agree with America or not.

It was only about three months ago that India’s foreign minister said that the country would not adhere to unilateral restrictions and would continue buying Iranian crude. China also made similar comments and was said to have rejected an American request to cut imports. Japan and South Korea have held talks with the US aimed at securing exemptions.

Yet for all the pushback and negotiations, an emerging pattern shows US sanctions are succeeding in throttling Iran’s sales to its customers even before the measures take effect in early November. While America initially wanted a complete halt in purchases, traders are now concerned that even a revised aim for only cuts would take out enough supply to create a market deficit — which other producers may struggle to fill.

"All of Iran’s oil customers are affected by increasing US pressure to halt purchases, even as they request for concessions to cope with the consequences," said Den Syahril, a senior analyst at industry consultant FGE. "We expect India and especially China to maintain some degree of imports, while buyers in Japan and Korea who’ve cut imports considerably will continue to aggressively seek waivers up till the last minute."

Since the comments about opposing US sanctions, India’s imports from Iran have tumbled and it’s said to be mulling a 50% cut in purchases. Latest data show flows to China, the top crude buyer, have also shrunk and the Asian country’s own tankers have stopped hauling supply from the Islamic Republic. Cargoes to South Korea plunged more than 40% in July, while Japanese firms have said September-loading shipments may be their last.

After continuing imports, albeit at reduced levels, the buyers must now contend with the ever-closer November 4 deadline, when the US will re-impose sanctions targeting Iran’s crude industry. Countries that deal with the Middle East producer after that will risk being cut off from the American financial system, unless they receive a waiver.

While a cargo would need to load only in mid-October to arrive in north Asia the following month, its purchase will have to be decided in September. With the US not yet saying whether it has granting any nation an exemption, all shipments from Iran to its leading customers may be in peril from September. Even if the waivers are provided, they will be based on the promise of keeping flows limited.

FGE estimates Iran’s exports will slump to below 1-million barrels a day by mid-2019, while industry consultant Energy Aspects expects a plunge of 1.5-million to 1.7-million in daily shipments by the end of 2018 from current levels of about 2.5-million. With concerns growing that global spare capacity will be stretched if other producers such as Saudi Arabia pump more to make up for the loss, the oil market is revealing risks of a crunch.

Near-term futures for Brent crude, the benchmark for more than half the world’s oil, are trading higher than later contracts in a market structure known as backwardation that typically signals a supply squeeze. Front-month prices have soared almost 50% over the past year, and were at $78.18 a barrel at 6.40am in London on Tuesday.

"There’s been a significant bump in the prompt oil contract that’s contributed to the backwardation, and this bullishness is backed by factors such as US sanctions on Iran," said Stephen Innes, head of Asia-Pacific trading at Oanda in Singapore. The market will look to other producers such as Russia to fill the void, even as Nigeria’s oil minister remains confident of Opec’s ability to pump more, said the Singapore-based analyst.

Apart from refiners, shipowners whose vessels help ferry the Middle East nation’s supply, insurers who cover those cargoes as well as banks that help process payments for the crude are at risk from the sanctions, further complicating any trade with Iran.

Indian Oil, the nation’s biggest refiner, does not have clarity on purchasing Iranian oil for October due to payment issues, and will wait for direction from the country’s government, a company official said in August. Japan’s Fuji Oil has effectively stopped buying crude from the Persian Gulf state because it is becoming difficult to secure a ship to transport oil, a company spokesperson said.