India bets on easing Iran oil curbs as fighting engulfs Iraq

India spent the past five years cutting its Iranian oil imports to comply with international sanctions. Now, Asia’s second-largest energy user needs the curbs to ease as fighting threatens its supply from Iraq.

Tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran meant India was obliged to halve purchases from the Gulf nation since 2009. Indian refiners, which get 85 percent of their oil from overseas, say they expect the restrictions to soften.

“We may be exempted from cutting imports from Iran this year,” P.P. Upadhya, managing director of Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd., the second-biggest Indian buyer of Iranian oil, said Wednesday “We expect the U.S. will be softer on Iran as the conflict deepens in Iraq.”

Benchmark crude prices are trading at a nine-month high as jihadists battle state forces in Iraq, which is now India’s second-biggest oil supplier. That’s boosting costs for importers and taking a toll on India’s currency.

Iran was India’s second-biggest supplier until three years ago, when it was displaced by Iraq. India cut purchases from Iran to 11 million metric tons in the year ended March 31, compared with a peak of 21.8 million tons in 2008-09, Oil Ministry data shows. The nation’s refiners bought about 25 million tons from Iraq.

“India will have to get the additional crude from wherever it can but with Brent oil rising, it’ll have to pay a higher price,” Praveen Kumar, an analyst at energy consultant FGE in Singapore, said Thursday. “As for India and Iran relations, Indian refiners have had a long-standing relationship with National Iranian Oil Co. and can take more Iranian crude.”

Indian refiners owe Iran $4.2 billion for crude and 39 percent will be paid off by next month, an Oil Ministry official said Thursday. The payments, held up by U.S. sanctions, will be made in dollars and transferred through the United Arab Emirates’ central bank, the official said.

Indian refiners have been asked to prepare for any supply disruptions from Iraq and diversify their crude purchase sources, the Oil Ministry said Thursday. State-run refiners plan to import 19.4 million tons of crude, or 20 percent of their requirement, from Iraq in the year ending March 31, compared with 13 percent a year earlier, according to the statement. There have been no supply disruptions so far, the ministry said.

The territorial advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has raised the specter of civil war in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer. ISIS, a breakaway group from Al-Qaeda, is fighting government forces near Baghdad, away from the southern part of the country where most of the oil fields are located.

“The real problem will be when the fighting reaches the south,” L.K. Gupta, chief executive officer of Essar Oil Ltd. , India’s biggest buyer of Iranian crude, said by phone Wednesday. “There’s enough oil in the market, so global supplies may not be affected, but the crisis can push up prices.”

Iran shipped 28 percent more crude and condensate this year after reaching an interim accord over its nuclear program with world powers, customs data and estimates from the International Energy Agency show. Diplomats are meeting again this week to reach a long-term deal before the existing pact expires July 20.

“The entire Iraq crisis will be nullified for India if the U.S. eases Iran sanctions,” B.N. Bankapur, an oil industry consultant and former refineries director at Indian Oil Corp., said Wednesday. “It is vital because Indian refiners will otherwise become too dependent on Saudi Arabia.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 21, 2014, on page 4.




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