Iran oil shipments slump

Iran’s oil shipments tumbled this month after the US ended sanctions waivers that allowed eight governments to buy from the Arabian Gulf country. So far, not a single ship has been seen leaving Iran’s oil terminals for foreign ports in tanker tracking data compiled by Bloomberg.

China, India, South Korea and Japan were among those allowed to buy about 1 million barrels a day of Iranian crude and condensate, a light form of oil extracted from gasfields, until May 2. Hopes that those exemptions might be extended were dashed, leaving buyers at risk of US penalties if they continued to take Iran’s oil. They seem not to have taken that chance.

China, South Korea and Japan had already taken a cautious approach to the end of waivers, cutting their purchases of Iran’s oil in April. The long voyages from the Arabian Gulf to northeast Asia, taking as much as a month, meant that oil lifted from Iranian terminals in April would not arrive until after the waivers had expired, leaving buyers at risk of reprisals.

Iran’s oil ministry, National Iranian Oil Co. and National Iranian Tanker Co. declined to comment.

The much shorter voyages to India meant that refiners there could keep buying Iranian oil until well into April and still see it arrive before May 2. As a result, the volume of crude seen leaving Iran for India in April was the most in seven months, at 400,000 barrels a day.

While tanker tracking provides a valuable indication of shipments, it does have limitations. Ships’ captains can turn off the transponders that signal their vessel’s position, hiding them from view. While this tactic has been employed by Iran since November, ships have usually reappeared several days after leaving the Arabian Gulf, or when passing choke points such as the Suez Canal or Singapore.

As of May 9, there were four Iranian tankers anchored off China, capable of holding a combined 5 million barrels, with another supertanker on its way. Two more very large crude carriers, each able to haul two million barrels, were observed at Indian ports waiting to discharge the last cargoes loaded in April.

Most of the rest of the Iranian tanker fleet is either heading back toward the Arabian Gulf after discharging cargoes, or have been observed in or near the region in the past two days.

There are some Iranian tankers that may still be hauling cargoes. No tracking signals have been received from 10 VLCCs for at least 16 days. These could have loaded Iranian oil and left the Arabian Gulf, but until they reappear it is more likely that they are being used for floating storage near the country’s loading terminals.

It is also possible that non-Iranian vessels could be picking up cargoes with their transponders turned off.