GENEVA (Reuters) - India has vaulted to the top of the list of Iran's oil customers, overtaking China, in a first-quarter buying surge ahead of tighter sanctions against Tehran this summer, data published by a leading industry consultant showed.
Direct imports to India from Iran were 433,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the first quarter, compared with 256,000 bpd to China, according to data compiled by Geneva's Petrologistics and seen by Reuters via an industry source.
The Indian import figure was up by around 23 percent from the 351,0000 bpd imported over the same period of 2011 and significantly above the its 2011 average of 326,000 bpd.
Iran, like many oil exporters, does not publish its own oil sales data on a timely basis. The Petrologistics figures, however, reinforce indications that India has stepped up imports, while business has slowed between Tehran and Beijing over payment terms.
"The first quarter was likely the exception to the rule ... China took a strong stance on negotiations, but its imports will clearly rise again as it takes new term contracts," said David Wech, an analyst at JBC Energy.
Iran's oil exports have fallen this year due to international sanctions aimed at slowing Tehran's nuclear programme.
India is raising its Iranian imports ahead of even tighter sanctions this summer, when payments, insurance and supplies are expected to be more uncertain, traders and analysts have said.
Iran traditionally sells most of its 2.2 million barrels per day of oil exports in Asia, where China, India, Japan and South Korea are the four biggest buyers.
Industry sources said Iran's crude oil exports fell by around 300,000 bpd to 1.9 million bpd in March, with customers in Europe making deep cuts ahead of an EU embargo due to be implemented on July 1.
Customs data showed that China's imports from Iran for February were down by 40.3 percent from the same period in 2011. This trend was confirmed by the Petrologistics data, which showed that imports were down 39.4 percent in the first quarter versus a year ago.
"China ditched some term contracts due to what they perceived as unfavourable terms and also as a bargaining ploy on prices," said a crude oil trader.
India, openly disdainful of sanctions to pressure Tehran, has been left off a list of nations given a U.S. waiver from the measures, but the government is privately pushing refiners for substantial cuts in imports from Iran.
On a monthly basis, India's crude purchases from Iran have fallen steadily from 531,000 bpd in January, when it first overtook China as top importer, the data showed, suggesting that purchases of Iranian crude have already peaked.
Petrologistics, one of several consultants estimating oil exports by tracking tanker shipments, showed that India imported 404,000 bpd in February and 363,000 bpd in March.
Reuters shipping data showed a similar trend, with India importing about 7 percent less Iranian crude. Many expect lower volumes when new contracts begin in April.
The top Indian oil importer in the first quarter was Essar Oil (ESRO.NS), buying 142,000 bpd compared with 88,000 bpd in the first quarter of 2011, the Petrologistics data showed.
Essar plans to expand its refining capacity and will raise the capacity of its giant Vadinar refinery to 405,000 bpd this year.
Historically, Iran's biggest Indian oil client was Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (MRPL) (MRPL.NS), which bought 110,000 in the first quarter, down from 162,0000 bpd in 2011, the data showed.
Indian Oil Corp ICO.NS stepped up imports to 85,000 bpd from just 11,000 bpd in the same quarter of 2011, it showed.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Jane Baird)