Iran has managed to clear almost all of its oil in floating storage and the OPEC producer's crude oil and condensate exports in March fell slightly from the previous month.
Iran, which is allowed special status to increase output slightly under the recent OPEC deal, could be switching its focus to improving returns for its oil from maximizing its market share over a year after coming out of the sanctions doldrums, as its output begins to plateau.
Total estimated export volume on Aframaxes, Suezmaxes and VLCCs from Iranian ports in March dropped to 2.35 mbd from 2.41 mbd in February, data from cFlow, S&P Global Platts trade flow software, showed.
This contrasts with the small output rise according to an S&P Global Platts survey, which estimated crude oil production at 3.77 mbd in March compared with 3.75 mbd in February thanks to a steady production boost due to the startup of the Azar and South Pars fields.
However, with Iran's allocation under the OPEC/non-OPEC output agreement at 3.797 mbd and its key competitors — Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — having to clip their wings in recent months, OPEC's third-largest producer is hoping to strengthen its relations among various global refiners.
Barrels held in floating storage again accounted for a proportion of Iran's exports in March and the country has now reduced the volume held on the water from over 40 million barrels early last year to around 5 million barrels, according to Platts estimates.
Exports to Asia jumped sharply to 1.685 mbd in March from 1.442 mbd in February, led by a sharp increase in shipments to India.
India surpassed China as the largest buyer, with 830,000 bpd of Iranian crude leaving for the refineries of the world's third largest crude importer. That compares with 507,071 bpd exported to India in February, data showed.
Indian demand for Iranian crude has been extremely strong this year but a political row between the countries threatens to curb these flows.
According to sources cited by the Times of India, Indian state refiners are set to cut oil imports from Iran in 2017-18 by a fifth, as New Delhi takes a more assertive stance over an impasse for the development of the 18.75 tcf Farzad B gas field, which it wants awarded to an Indian consortium.
Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh last week dismissed India's threat to reduce Iranian imports.
"Iran is keen to develop ties with India. But if New Delhi reduces its oil imports from Iran, we do not have a problem, as we have many customers and the demand for Iran's crude oil is greater than what we can currently supply," he said.
On top of this, the largest Indian buyer of Iranian crude is private refiner Essar Oil, which operates the 405,000 bpd refinery in Vadinar, and sources have said they don't expect this dispute to have much impact on Essar's appetite.
Flows to China, South Korea rise
Exports to China rose to 596,774 bpd in March — up 35,060 bpd from February.
Chinese demand for heavy Iranian grades has been robust this year but with OPEC/non-OPEC cuts, its demand for crude from the Atlantic Basin has increased sharply, particularly from Angola and the North Sea.
Japan, a major buyer of Iranian condensate, has reduced its interest sharply this year. Exports to Japan averaged 33,129 bpd in March — down from 95,321 bpd in February and 212,161 bpd in January.
March exports to South Korea averaged 225,710 bpd, up from 203,607 bpd. Iran has replaced Kuwait as South Korea's second biggest crude supplier in January and February, according to recent data from the Korea National Oil Corp.
South Korean demand for Iranian condensate has grown since late last year as oil refiner Hyundai Oilbank started commercial operations at its 130,000 bpd condensate splitter in November. Lower prices have been another factor behind the sharp rise in Iranian oil imports, according to South Korean officials.
Flows to Europe in March fell to 523,291 bpd from 629,036 bpd, with Turkey and Italy emerging as the main destinations.
Demand from Greece, France, Italy and Spain fell month on month. Trade sources said that spot purchases of Iranian crude were beginning to fall due to stiffer competition from other heavy sour oil producers like Russia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Despite these producers trimming output in recent months, it is a timely reminder for Iran that it may not be able to out-muscle key competitors for the European market.
One source said that European refineries have enough sour crude barrels to choose from and that, from a price perspective, Iranian crude was not as appealing for April/May loading dates.
A trade source has noted that refiners that have term contracts with NIOC were buying steady amounts of Iranian crude but that spot purchases have been low recently.
* Eklavya Gupte is an economist with Platts.