TOKYO, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Japan's customs-cleared crude oil
imports from Iran fell 18.8 percent in November from a year
earlier, data from the Ministry of Finance showed on Thursday,
as Western sanctions squeezed shipments from the Middle Eastern
Japan, the world's third-biggest user of oil, imported
1,246,176 kilolitres (261,273 barrels per day) of Iranian
crude last month, compared with 1,533,956 kl (321,609 bpd) a
year ago, according to customs-cleared data from the ministry.
That marked the highest volumes since 1,751,737 kl (355,422
bpd) in March 2012, the month before Japan started sharply
cutting imports from the Islamic republic due to Western
Japan's trade ministry is due to release separate crude
import data on Friday, which is more closely followed by the oil
industry as it tracks the actual import status of tankers.
Crude importers can seek customs clearance within three
months of a cargo's arrival or apply to have the load
categorized as "import for storage" and held for up to two years
before being cleared, meaning the finance ministry data can be
out of date.
The United States in September renewed waivers on Iranian
sanctions for Japan and 10 European countries because they cut
their purchases of the OPEC nation's crude oil.
Tough sanctions from Washington and Europe to force Iran to
curb its nuclear programme have already cut Iran's oil exports
by more than half this year, costing it more than $5 billion a
month. Tehran says the programme is for civilian purposes.
Making matters worse for Iran is a little-noticed provision
in U.S. sanctions, which goes into effect on Feb. 6, stating
that funds being used to pay for oil must remain in a bank
account in the purchasing country and can be used only for
non-sanctioned, bilateral trade between that country and Iran.
For the first 11 months of 2012, Japan imported 10,240,797
kl (192,276 bpd) of Iranian crude, down 38.7 percent from
16,664,267 kl (313,817 bpd) in the same period a year ago,
according to Reuters calculations based on the finance
ministry's customs-cleared data.
Japan's oil imports from Iran may be about 15 percent lower
next year, capped roughly at 160,000 bpd and may possibly be cut
further, Yasushi Kimura, the president of Petroleum Association
of Japan, who also serves as the chairman of JX Nippon Oil &
Energy Corp, told reporters last week.
Japan's imports of Iranian crude oil fell to zero in July
for the first time since 1981, according to Trade Ministry data,
as the EU sanctions barred insurance companies providing cover
on tankers carrying oil from Iran.
(Reporting by Osamu Tsukimori; Editing by Joseph Radford)