Russian oil giant LUKOIL has resumed gasoline sales into Iran in partnership with China's state-run firm Zhuhai Zhenrong, even as the United States urges the international community to be tough with Tehran.
Iran is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter but lacks adequate refining capacity to meet domestic demand for motor fuel, forcing it to import up to 40 percent of its requirements.
Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, signed up to the latest round of U.N. sanctions on Iran, but refused to support measures that targeted the Islamic Republic's oil and gas sector.
The U.S. has since passed additional unilateral sanctions allowing it to penalize fuel suppliers to Iran, measures criticized by both Beijing and Moscow.
Moscow is struggling to balance trade ties with Tehran and warmer relations with the United States, which is eager for Kremlin support to rein in Iranian nuclear activities Washington says it believes are aimed at developing a nuclear bomb.
In July, Russia's energy minister Sergei Shmatko said Russian companies would be ready to supply fuel to Iran if there were commercial interest and attractive terms.
LUKOIL has the largest U.S. presence among Russian firms. In April, it joined a growing list of companies that halted shipments as sanctions loomed.
Then sources familiar with the company said traders involved in gasoline trading with Iran at the Russian energy giant had received verbal direction from senior management to halt business activity.
But LUKOIL's trading arm, Litasco, and Zhenrong discharged a 250,000-barrel gasoline cargo at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas last week, industry sources said.
Geneva-based Litasco was expected to ship a second cargo of the motor fuel to Bandar Abbas later this week, traders said.
A LUKOIL spokesman said "one-off deliveries (to Iran after it decided to stop the shipments in spring) took place within the frame of previously signed contracts."
The spokesman declined to give more details. It was unclear if either of these shipments to Bandar Abbas formed part of the previously signed contracts.
Chinese companies have delivered about half of Iran's gasoline imports in recent months. State-run Zhenrong is the single largest lifter of Iranian crude oil.
Exposure to the US
LUKOIL has significant exposure in the United States, with 1,500 retail gasoline stations. U.S. major ConocoPhillips owns 20 percent of LUKOIL's share, but in July announced its plans to sell the entire stake and use the funds to buy back shares.
The Russian firm recently said it would buy back 40 percent of Conoco's 20 percent stake in the company with an option to buy back the remaining 11.61 percent.
The European Union also passed sanctions that target oil and gas investment in Iran.
With increasing pressure from the United States and its Western allies, many international oil companies and trading firms have been forced to halt their supply to Iran, fearing a backlash.
"No company wants to be blacklisted by the United States or for that matter, the European Union, so most companies have just decided to let it go," a trader said.
Since the start of the year international oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, France's Total along with Reliance Industries, the world's largest private refiner, have stopped supplying Iran with gasoline. Others that have stopped supply include Swiss based traders Glencore and Vitol.
"It is certainly getting harder for Iran to buy gasoline from the international spot market...sellers are mindful of the tougher sanctions environment," an Asian-based trader said. "Sellers are well aware of the risks involved in continuing with this business, but they will have to weigh it against the rewards."
Turkey to support petrol sales to Iran: Turkish Energy Minister
Turkey will support petrol sales by Turkish companies to Iran, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told Reuters on Wednesday, despite U.S. sanctions that aim to squeeze the Islamic Republic's fuel imports.
The pledge came ahead of an expected resumption of talks next month between world powers and Tehran on the Iranian nuclear program, which Washington suspects aims to develop atomic weapons.
"If the preference of the private sector is to sell these (petroleum) products to Iran, we will help them. There is no demand for Turkey to halt the trade of these products with Iran," Yildiz said in an interview.
Ankara has recently drawn closer to Tehran, its eastern neighbor. Together with Brazil, it brokered a deal in May for a nuclear fuel swap in Tehran, hoping that this would draw Iran and major powers back to the negotiating table.
Iran, which says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, gave an assurance that it would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent purity if world powers agreed to the proposed nuclear fuel swap. World powers were lukewarm about the plan.
Since June, the U.N. Security Council, the United States, and the European Union have imposed additional sanctions that increased the pressure on Tehran.
Turkey and Iran's planned joint construction of power plants with a total capacity of 6,000 megawatts will continue, giving the two countries enough capacity to feed their own markets as well as other countries in the Middle East, said Yildiz.
A planned natural gas pipeline from the Islamic Republic to Turkey by private Turkish company SOM Petrol will be used to supply European gas markets as well Turkey's demands, the minister said.