China Oil Imports From Iran Rebound

BEIJING—China’s imports of Iranian crude oil recovered in April after sharp drops earlier this year, suggesting Beijing remains a steady customer despite U.S. efforts to tighten sanctions on Tehran.

China’s April crude imports from Iran, at 1.6 million metric tons or about 390,000 barrels a day, were down almost 24% from a year earlier—but up more than 48% from March.

That increase likely reflects the resolution of a commercial dispute between Chinese and Iranian companies. State-controlled China International United Petroleum & Chemical Co., known as Unipec, had skipped purchases from National Iranian Oil Co. as they worked out differences over the terms of the supply agreement. The dispute was resolved in mid-February, and the additional barrels likely started arriving in April, around three weeks after being shipped from Kharg Island in Iran.

The higher volumes from Iran in April may signal further increases in coming months, though the slowdown in February and March makes it unlikely that this year’s levels will eclipse last year’s. Iran will fully restore crude exports to China in the next few months, a person familiar with Iran’s oil sales has said.

Chinese officials have said that Western sanctions aren’t likely to affect its imports from the Islamic Republic. By contrast, neighboring countries including Japan and South Korea have reduced Iranian imports as part of efforts to win sanction waivers from the U.S. government.

The U.S. has sought to raise pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. China has defended its trade, telling the U.S. it complies with existing United Nations sanctions.

Iran was China’s third-largest oil supplier last year, when it shipped about 557,000 barrels a day, after No. 1 Saudi Arabia and No. 2 Angola.

Crude shipments from China’s No. 7 supplier last year, Sudan, ground to a standstill in April, after being down 59% and 52% in February and March, respectively. South Sudan, which split off last July, in January halted the flow of crude into Sudan—where the oil-export facilities are—after accusing it of stealing oil. China is by far the largest buyer of crude produced in South Sudan, importing about 260,000 barrels a day last year.

China made up for the losses by boosting imports from Saudi Arabia, Angola, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Crude shipments from Saudi Arabia in April were up 14% from a year earlier, rising to 4.38 million tons, or 1.07 million barrels a day.

Total crude imports in April were up 3.3% from a year earlier, to 22.26 million tons, or 5.44 million barrels a day, customs data showed. However, they were down from March’s 5.57 million barrels a day, likely due to refinery-maintenance season, which is expected to peak in May.

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