Iran has taken delivery of several new tankers from Chinese shipyards, giving it greater flexibility in maintaining oil exports in the face of Western sanctions.
The sanctions, imposed by the United States and European Union to halt a nuclear programme they believe is a cover to develop atomic weapons, have hurt Iran's oil exports, leading to a plunge in its currency.
But Iranian crude oil imports rose in December to their highest since European Union sanctions took effect last July, helped in part by more tankers deployed.
Since the start of 2013, two supertankers have joined Iran's trading fleet, with another three new vessels having arrived in recent months, according to industry sources and shipping data. Each vessel has a maximum capacity of 2 million barrels of oil.
"Right now Iran needs every tanker, and it will certainly make life easier for them," said Sam Ciszuk with KBC Energy Economics consultancy.
"With a few more tankers, they could build floating storage to make sure they can provide a buffer for these big fluctuations in oil demand," he said, referring to holding oil on board ships at sea until buyers can be found.
Iran's main tanker operator NITC has been blacklisted by the West, and the EU has imposed an outright ban on ship insurance provision. The exit from Iran of top providers of ship certification, vital for ports access, and the de-flagging from international registries of vessels have added to operational challenges for Iranian shipping firms including NITC.
"Iran is having to stay ahead of sanctions and needs to make sure they can keep their fleet on the water, which includes changing the flags of their ships and finding certification for their vessels," a shipping industry source said.
With the latest acquisitions, NITC's supertanker fleet has been boosted to 30 vessels with a maximum carrying capacity of 60 million barrels. It has an additional 14 small crude oil tankers.
NITC officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Atlantis and Infinity, the two vessels that joined NITC's fleet in recent weeks, are part of a $1.2 billion contract with two Chinese shipyards that was ordered in 2009 for 12 new supertankers. The Carnation, Rainbow and Skyline reached NITC last year.
Last year sources in China had said the yards had planned to deliver the 12 by the end of 2013 to NITC.
An industry official in China familiar with the matter said he was aware of "several new tankers delivered from China's shipyards over the past one or two months".
"All we heard is new tankers being delivered, and that is good news for us," the official said.
Iran also took delivery of a liquefied petroleum gas tanker in January, vessels that can carry propane and butane, data showed.
To get round insurance restrictions, NITC tankers have been relying on cover from Iranian providers, though industry sources said it remained unclear what type of classification provision the vessels had.
"All will almost certainly change name and flag when entering service. Future class is also unknown as all major classification societies now exclude NITC vessels," said Richard Hurley, a senior analyst at maritime intelligence publisher IHS Fairplay.
"While the flag status of the current fleet remains in doubt, this does not appear to affect their ability to ship oil to their existing trading partners."
While many of Iran's clients have slashed purchases of oil, the lifeblood of Tehran's economy, China has maintained robust demand.
IHS Fairplay data showed the remaining six of the seven tankers on order, which include Sonata and Demos, were at various stages of development in China. Work was yet to start on the seventh tanker Dusk.
"Sonata and Demos have been seen on AIS (ship tracking) recently, suggesting they are in the final stages of construction, and Sonata may already be on sea trials," said Hurley.
Western sanctions halved Iran's oil exports in 2012 from 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) in late 2011, leading to billions of dollars in lost revenue.
While exports rose to 1.4 million bpd in December 2012, sales were expected to dip in January ahead of new U.S. sanctions, industry sources told Reuters last week.
Iran and world powers announced new talks on Tehran's nuclear programme on Feb. 26, but hopes of progress after Tuesday's announcement were tempered when an Iranian official said the West's goal in talking was to undermine the Islamic republic.
Analysts said if the West eases sanctions in the future, a bigger fleet would enable Iran to boost its operational capabilities more quickly.
"In any future recovery, the more tankers they have, the quicker they can probably start delivering to clients once sanctions are lifted," KBC's Ciszuk said.
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