NEW DELHI (Reuters, Bloomberg) - India's oil ministry has asked refiners to prepare for a 'drastic reduction or zero' imports of Iranian oil from November, two industry sources said, the first sign that New Delhi is responding to a push by the United States to cut trade ties with Iran.
India has said it does not recognise unilateral restrictions imposed by the United States, and instead follows UN sanctions.
But the industry sources said India, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil after China, will be forced to take action to protect its exposure to the US financial system.
India's oil ministry held a meeting with refiners on Thursday (June 28), urging them to scout for alternatives to Iranian oil, the sources said.
"(India) has asked refiners to be prepared for any eventuality, since the situation is still evolving. There could be drastic reduction or there could be no import at all," said one of the sources, who has knowledge of the matter.
Indian oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan told reporters in Mumbai that the country would attend to its interests while deciding on oil imports.
"We know (that) to have a healthy energy mix, we can get oil from anywhere. The rest depends on geopolitics, and those decisions will be taken based on the situations," he said.
"We will go by our interests. When we decide anything on Iran, we will inform you."
During the previous round of sanctions, India was one of the few countries that continued to buy Iranian oil, although it had to reduce imports as shipping, insurance and banking channels were choked due to the European and US sanctions.
The source said this time the situation is different.
"You have India, China and Europe on one side, and US on the other... At this moment we really don't know what to do, but at the same time we have to prepare ourselves to face any eventuality," said the source.
Iran may be left with few options beyond convincing China to buy more of its oil, risking over-reliance on what's already its biggest customer.
"Iran is in a really horrible position right now," said Sara Vakhshouri, head of Washington, D.C.-based consultant SVB Energy International.
"There's not really much Iran can do to maintain its export level."
While a US State Department official has said that Washington wants Iranian oil buyers to halt imports from November, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lessen dependence on Iranian oil.
Haley, currently in Delhi, spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo early on Wednesday, before meeting Modi.
The US push to curb countries' imports of Iranian oil comes after President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers and ordered a reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.
Some sanctions take effect after a 90-day "wind-down" period ending on Aug 6, and the rest, notably in the petroleum sector, following a 180-day "wind-down period" ending on Nov 4.
It's not clear the U.S. will achieve a full halt, since even American allies are displeased with its unilateral abandonment of the deal that curbed Iran's nuclear program.
"Korea, China, Japan have already expressed they cannot go for zero," Iran's OPEC governor Hossein Kazempour Ardebili said in an interview on Wednesday.
OUTPUT BOOST FROM OPEC
Under pressure from the US sanctions, Reliance Industries Ltd, the operator of the world's biggest refining complex, has decided to halt imports.
Nayara Energy, an Indian company promoted by Russian oil major Rosneft, is also preparing to halt Iranian oil imports from November after a communication from the government, a second source said.
The company has already started cutting its oil imports from this month.
Indian Oil Corp, Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Ltd and Nayara Energy, the top three Indian buyers of Iranian oil, did not respond to Reuters's request for comments.
Removing Iranian oil from the global market by November as called for by the United States is impossible, an Iranian oil official told the semi-official Tasnim news agency on Wednesday.
The options to find replacements to Iranian oil have widened after OPEC agreed with Russia and other oil-producing allies last week to raise output from July by about one million bpd, with Saudi Arabia pledging a "measurable" supply boost but giving no specific numbers.
Saudi Arabia's plans to pump up to 11 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in July would mark a new record, an industry source familiar with Saudi oil production plans told Reuters on Tuesday.
The second source said there were plenty of options available in the market to replace Iranian oil. "There are companies and traders that are willing to give you a 60 day credit, crude is available in the market," the source said.
To boost its sales to India, Iran recently offered virtually free shipping and an extended credit period of 60 days.
"We can buy Basra Heavy, Saudi or Kuwait oil to replace Iran. Finding replacement barrels is not a problem, but it has to give the best economic value," a third source in New Delhi said.