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Istanbul — Turkey has no plans to change its trading relationship with Iran, Turkish economy minister Nihat Zeybekci said in an interview late Tuesday with Turkish television channel CNN Turk.

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Related feature -- Iran Sanctions: Global Energy Implications

"Iran is our neighbor. It is a very important trading partner," said Zeybekci, pointing out the importance of Iran to Turkey's energy supply and the $20 billion trade balance between the two countries.

Iran has been Turkey's leading supplier of crude oil for most of the past two decades, ceding first place to Iraq only for three years during the recent period of US sanctions.

Imports last year came to 11.493 million mt, or 44.6% of the total supply, at an average of 230,800 b/d, up 66% from the 6.939 million mt supplied in 2016.

Turkey's sole refiner, Tupras, which imports crude for three of its four refineries with a total capacity of 540,000 b/d, is believed to have a long-term purchase agreement with Iran under which it imports regular volumes at a small discount to regional prices.

During the period of US and international sanctions against Iran, Tupras was obliged to reduce the Iranian volumes it imported by 20%, although the base volume for calculations was not made public.

Turkey's crude import situation is due to change in the next few months with the commissioning of Socar's 214,000 b/d STAR refinery, which officials have said will import a selection of regional crudes.

Speaking to Platts Tuesday, an official from Socar Turkey said that the refinery plans to start full commercial production at the end of September or early October and expects to receive its first crude cargo July 1-10.

The official declined to identify the planned source, suggesting only that, as the refinery will initially be operating for test production, the first delivery of crude would need to be from a source expected to be a regular major supplier.

Iran is also a major exporter of natural gas to Turkey through the purpose-built 14 Bcm/year Iran-Turkey gas pipeline, which began operations in 2001.

Turkey imports up to 9.6 Bcm/year of gas from Iran under a 25-year deal with Turkey's state gas importer Botas, signed in 1996. Imports last year came to 9.36 Bcm, representing 17% of total imports and meeting 17.5% of Turkish gas demand for the year.

Speaking to Platts at the World Petroleum Conference in Istanbul last year, Iranian officials confirmed that Tehran is interested in increasing the volume of gas it exports to Turkey utilizing the spare capacity in the existing export pipeline.

--David O'Byrne,

--Edited by James Leech,