Actual imports from Iran in the first 11 months of this year have been lower at 421,520 bpd, down 0.6 percent on year, according to Chinese customs figures, due to pressure from the Western sanctions. China's total imports from Iran averaged about 530,500 bpd in the year prior to the sanctions.
Of the total for next year, Zhuhai Zhenrong is set to renew its annual supply deal at around 240,000 bpd, not including any new deal for condensate.
"It's almost done, and the volume will be the same," said a trading official with direct knowledge of the supply talks. Senior Zhenrong officials may visit Tehran in the coming weeks to put final touches on the 2014 agreement, the official said.
Zhenrong was set up around 1995 to take oil from Tehran in payment for arms Beijing supplied during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. It has been a commercial state-run enterprise since 1998.
The balance of China's contract volumes from Iran would be going to Sinopec, through its trading vehicle Unipec.
Unipec agreed with NIOC early last year to an 8-year oil contract to end-2019 to lift around 265,000 bpd, about a quarter of which is condensate, according to a second trading official.
Under U.S. and European sanctions, Sinopec has been lifting below those contractual volumes to win waivers to the U.S. measures every six months, with one official estimating the cut at 11-13 percent. Sinopec has filled the gap mainly with Iraqi and Russian supplies.
Waivers for China, India and South Korea were extended in November.
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China's waiver, together with November's diplomatic breakthrough, may have taken some pressure off the U.S.-listed Sinopec, the world's single largest Iranian oil processor, to make further cuts.
"It's at Sinopec's discretion to decide whether to perform the contractual volume," said a second trading official. "But the contract is there, signed through end of 2019."
A Sinopec spokesperson said he was not aware of the contract and was unable to comment.
Since November, Sinopec has loaded slightly above contractual rates following a meeting the previous month between Iran's deputy oil minister Ali Mojedi and a Sinopec executive in charge of trading, said the second official.
But Sinopec may not risk raising imports significantly higher before more progress is made on easing sanctions on Iran.
"There are still potential risks without signs of sanctions being lifted in a meaningful way," said a procurement official with a Sinopec refinery.