UPDATE 1-S.Korea Iran oil imports down in Dec, likely to hold near same levels
levels@ (Adds details on 2013, total imports, background on Iran sanctions)
* Dec crude imports from Iran at 131,901 bpd, down 29.7 pct y/y - customs
* Iran imports for 2013 at 134,008 bpd, down 14.3 pct y/y
* Total Dec crude imports at 2.4 mln bpd, down 8.9 pct y/y
* 2013 crude imports at 2.5 mln bpd, down 4.8 pct y/y
SEOUL, Jan 15 (Reuters) - South Korea's crude imports from Iran fell nearly 30 percent in December from a year ago and are likely to stay near current levels for the next six months as the initial deal over Tehran's nuclear programme is implemented.
The Geneva accord reached in November eases some sanctions on Iran and allows it to hold crude exports at current rates. It takes effect on Jan. 20, and shortly afterwards, Tehran and the P5+1 group of world powers will begin to negotiate a final settlement of their differences.
Until a final agreement is reached, most of the Middle Eastern nation's buyers, including India, Japan and South Korea, are unlikely to make large increases in their import volumes. Only China has made any move to increase its imports since the Geneva deal, with a state trader trying to negotiate a new light crude contract for 2014.
South Korea imported 557,836 tonnes of Iranian crude last month, or 131,901 barrels per day (bpd), up nearly 5 percent from November, but down about 29.7 percent from a year earlier, preliminary customs data showed on Wednesday.
Western powers suspect Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at obtaining weapons capability. Iran says its programme is for electricity generation and other civilian purposes.
Tough sanctions placed on Iran in 2012 crippled its economy and cost it billions of dollars a month in lost oil revenue.
Under the Geneva deal easing those sanctions in exchange for curbs on the programme from Tehran, South Korea and other buyers no longer need to make cuts in their Iran volumes to win waivers for the U.S. portion of the sanctions every six months.
South Korea won its last U.S. waiver at end-November by hitting its target of cutting its Iran oil shipments 15 percent in the June-November 2013 period over the previous six months.
For all of 2013, the world's fifth-largest crude buyer imported 134,008 bpd on average from Iran, down 14.3 percent from the previous year, according to the customs data.
South Korea's Iranian crude imports can differ widely from month to month as one of the two Korean refiners that buys from Iran receives oil only every other month.
SK Energy and Hyundai Oilbank are the only South Korean refiners that buy Iranian oil on a regular basis.
South Korea imported a total of 10 million tonnes of crude last month, or 2.4 million bpd, compared with 11 million tonnes in December 2012, according to the customs data.
For 2013, South Korea imported 123.3 million tonnes, or 2.5 million bpd, compared with 129.6 million tonnes in 2012.
Final data for South Korea's crude oil imports in December and for 2013 will be released by state-run Korea National Oil Corp later this month.
(Reporting By Jane Chung; Editing by Tom Hogue)