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LONDON, Jan 15 (Reuters) – Iranian oil exports hit new highs in the final two months of 2022 and are off to a strong start in 2023 despite U.S. sanctions, according to companies tracking flows amid higher shipments to China and Venezuela.

Tehran’s oil exports have been restricted since former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions aimed at limiting oil exports and related revenues to the Iranian government.

Exports rose under his successor, President Joe Biden, who sought to revive the nuclear deal, and by some estimates reached the highest level since 2019. This is despite headwinds such as the stalling of those talks and competition from discounted Russian oil.

Energy consultant SVB International said Iran’s crude exports averaged 1.137 million bpd in December, up 42,000 bpd from November and the highest figure for 2022, which SVB reported based on earlier estimates.

“Compared to the Trump administration, there has been no serious crackdown or action against Iran’s oil exports,” says Sara Vakhshuri of SVB. “January exports were as strong as in previous months.”

“Low Chinese demand and Russian supply to China is a big challenge for them. Most of its oil still goes to the Far East, ultimately to China. Iran is also helping Venezuela export its oil.”

Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the administration’s enforcement of sanctions was strong, and “Iran’s macroeconomic indicators clearly bear that out.”

“We have not hesitated and will not hesitate to take action against sanctions evasion, as well as sanctions against Iran’s missile and drone trade, as well as human rights violations against the Iranian people,” Watson said. The Treasury Department sanctioned an oil smuggling ring linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) late last year.

Consultant Petro-Logistics, which tracks oil supplies, said it was also seeing an upward trend in Iranian crude exports, which it said reached their highest level since March 2019 in December.

Data analyst Kpler said Iran’s crude exports were 1.23 million bpd in November, the highest since August 2022 and nearly matching April 2019’s level of 1.27 million bpd, although they fell to 1 million bpd in December. a little lower.

Iran’s oil ministry did not respond to a request for comment on exports. Iran’s state budget draft is based on even higher shipments of 1.4 million barrels per day, the semi-official Fars news agency reported this week.

China is Iran’s biggest customer. According to analysts, including FGE, much of the crude from Iran to China is being rebranded as crude from other countries to avoid sanctions. Iran has previously stated that documents were falsified to hide the origin of the Iranian cargo.

In addition, Iran last year expanded its role in Venezuela, also under US sanctions, by sending light oil stocks for refining and diluents to produce crude for export.

MORE TO CHINA

There is no definitive figure for Iran’s oil exports, and estimates often fall within a wide range. Tanker tracking companies use a variety of methods to track flows, including satellite data, port loading data, and human intelligence. Iran, in general, does not publish figures.

According to another analyst, Vortexa, December imports of Iranian oil from China hit a new record of 1.2 million barrels per day, up 130% from last year.

“Most of these shipments have found a home in Shandong, where independent refiners have turned to discounted products since the second half of 2022 amid sluggish domestic demand and shrinking refining margins,” the company said.

In response to a request for comment, the press department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: “Legitimate and reasonable cooperation between China and Iran under the international legal framework deserves respect and protection,” without directly addressing a Reuters question about China’s record purchase of Iranian oil. .

Vortexa said supplies of Russia’s Urals, Iran’s main rival, fell in December as a cap on the export price of Russian crude and a European Union ban created uncertainty for buyers.

A renewed nuclear deal would allow Iran to boost sales to former buyers such as South Korea and Europe.

Still, talks have been deadlocked since September, and Washington’s special envoy for Iran said in November that Tehran’s crackdown on anti-government protesters and drone sales to Russia had distracted Washington from the deal.

Iran’s crude exports fell to 100,000 bpd in 2020 from more than 2.5 million bpd in 2018 after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, according to tanker tracking.

Reporting by Alex Lawler; Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Chen Aizhu and Timothy Gardner; Editing by David Evans

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