JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s crude oil imports from Iran fell 43 percent to 286,072 tonnes in April from the previous month, customs data showed on Thursday, indicating Pretoria could be cutting shipments to avoid looming U.S. sanctions.
South Africa has come under Western pressure to cut Iranian crude imports as part of sanctions designed to halt Tehran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, but the response from diplomatically non-aligned Pretoria has been unclear for months.
The Revenue Service said the value of crude imports from Iran fell to 1.798 billion rand in April from 3.37 billion rand the previous month.
Until late last year, Iran was typically South Africa’s biggest crude supplier, accounting for a quarter of its oil imports. Iranian shipments declined between October and January, when they reached zero, but began rising again in February.
Africa’s biggest economy imported a total of 1.216 million tonnes of crude in April. Imports from Saudi Arabia nearly doubled to 671,419 tonnes from 355,550 in March, with the remaining 258,184 tonnes coming from Nigeria.
An energy ministry official said this month South Africa was holding almost daily talks with the United States, European Union and Iran about reducing its purchases and was “confident” a deal can be struck to avert U.S. sanctions.
Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, told Reuters last week that South Africa had no choice but to comply with Washington’s wishes because it could take a heavy hit if it does not comply.
“We will do it because we are a small economy, and so I’m sure we’ll cut back,” he said.
“But we don’t think the political principles are correct and applied consistently.”
Some South African refineries are designed to treat Iranian-type crude only, and analysts say refiners will be hard-pressed to replace those supplies with other products.
Any disruption to crude imports could hit fuel supplies, which have suffered shortages in the last year because of strikes and refinery problems.
The biggest South African buyer of Iranian crude used to be Engen, which is majority-owned by Malaysian state oil group Petronas , but the group said in April it had halted all imports of Iranian oil.
Petrochemicals group Sasol also said it had found new suppliers but has not named them.
Other refiners in South Africa include BP, Shell, Total and Chevron. BP and Chevron said in February they were not sourcing any Iranian crude.