By Jonathan Saul
LONDON (Reuters) - The first international container ships began arriving in Iran this week after the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, yet many ship owners remainf wary of resuming business until sanctions are removed - still some months away.
Iran had depended on foreign ships for much of its imports, but has relied more on land routes and its own commercial fleet, particularly since 2012, as layers of sanctions led to an exodus of Western shipping firms, leading to supply disruptions.
In one of the first signs of change, the world's third largest container shipping group, France's CMA CGM, said on Monday it would restart services to Iran in early August.
The UK-flagged CMA CGM Andromeda container ship arrived in Iran's Bandar Abbas port on Thursday, ship tracking data on Thomson Reuters Eikon showed. CMA CGM declined further comment.
Taiwanese container line Evergreen, the world's fifth biggest player, said it had also resumed calls to Bandar Abbas and its first vessel arrived at the port on Wednesday.
Evergreen, one of the last lines to suspend direct calls in 2013, said its Iran service would "accommodate increased customer demand that we are experiencing".
While Iran's market represents a potential boon, EU and U.S. officials have stressed it is likely to be months before trade measures are removed and subject to Iran meeting its obligations under the nuclear deal reached last month.
"Once Iran fulfils its commitments, it will receive sanctions relief," Samantha Evans, deputy head of the sanctions section at Britain's Foreign Office, told an Iran business forum in London.
The sanctions have an explicit exemption for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods, but foreign shipping firms previously pulled out to avoid falling foul of its provisions.
The 2011 blacklisting of Iranian port operator Tidewater Middle East Co, which operates terminals including Bandar Abbas and major grain terminal Bandar Imam Khomeini, has also discouraged foreign shipping firms. That designation remains in place, making trade complicated due to difficulties with making payments with designated entities.
Ship insurer Standard Club said this week: "Members should exercise caution if they are considering trading to Iran and carry out due diligence including seeking legal advice to ensure that they will not be in breach of sanctions."
The world's top container group Maersk Line said it was prepared to resume commercial container business in Iran again "as and when international sanctions are repealed".
Diego Aponte, President and Chief Executive of the world's number two line MSC, visited Tehran in July for informal meetings with logistics businesses and government officials. The company said it was "optimistic about future trading" in Iran.
BMI Research forecast container throughput at Bandar Abbas would expand by 6.7 percent year-on-year in 2015 to reach 1.7 million TEU (20-foot equivalent units).
"The port has a long way to go to reclaim its previous milestone of 2.8 million TEU, which it recorded in 2011, but we believe that recovery is underway," said Michelle Berman, head of operational risk at BMI Research.
(Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz in Paris; Editing by Veronica Brown and David Evans)