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Japanese refiners working to resume Iran oil loadings: PAJ chief

Tokyo — Japanese refiners are aiming to resume loadings of Iranian oil from January, but won't take the risk of loading cargoes beyond March amid doubts over whether Washington would extend the 180-day sanctions waiver, Petroleum Association of Japan President Takashi Tsukioka said Thursday.

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"Despite facing various hurdles, we believe we are moving toward the lifting [of Iranian oil] with the US [sanctions] waiver," Tsukioka said when asked to comment on his outlook on Iranian oil imports amid uncertainty over shipping insurance.

Tsukioka added that Japanese refiners would focus on importing Iranian oil by March because of the uncertainty over whether the US would extend the current 180-day sanctions waiver.

"We aim to lift as much as possible over January-March to keep our hope for the next [period]," Tsukioka said.

Refiners in Japan, along with South Korean refiners, have so far resisted loading Iranian oil for January despite US waivers allowing them to restart the trades amid a lack of clarity over rules for shipping insurance.

But the latest statement from the PAJ chief means that the country would only have three months to ship in cargoes from Iran. This would help to dispel concerns among Japanese refiners, which had earlier feared they would have a much shorter window to load Iranian oil to ensure those cargoes were delivered before the 180-day sanctions waiver from the US State Department expires on May 4.

Washington expects importers in eight countries with "significant reduction exemptions" to complete all Iranian oil transactions before May 5, according to a US government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official declined to say whether the US would consider additional exemptions covering May-November 2019.

"If someone takes delivery or pays for Iranian crude oil when they do not have an active SRE, that transaction would be sanctionable," the US official said.

Asked about Asian refiners' difficulty restarting shipments, the US official said the point of the exemptions was to "moderate the impact on global oil markets of a sudden dislocation of all of Iran's 2.5 million b/d of production."

"If importers decide, for whatever reason, that they would prefer to diversify away from Iran more rapidly than the SRE would permit them to do, we think that is a good thing," the US official said. "Because our preference is all importers go to zero as quickly as possible."

Japan was among eight countries to receive a waiver for US sanctions that took effect November 5 on Iranian oil imports until May, when they will be expected to cut their purchases significantly.

Iran exported an estimated 1 million b/d of oil in November, down from 2.4 million b/d earlier this year, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics, which expects exports to rise to an average of 1.4 million b/d over December-April as the eight importers work through contract and logistical lags from the waivers.

--Takeo Kumagai,

--Edited by Wendy Wells,