By Jonathan Saul and Alison Leung
LONDON/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Iran's top commercial tanker operator NITC has delayed the expansion of its oil fleet, company and industry sources said, as Western sanctions on the OPEC member's crude exports and a weak freight market hurt its ability to turn a profit.
The delivery setback deprives the Islamic Republic of much-needed capacity to store oil on vessels at a time when Asian customers have slashed purchases by about a fifth from last year's 1.45 million barrels per day (bpd) in preparation for new European Union sanctions against Tehran.
Iran-based shipping sources said in April that Iran had been forced to deploy more than half of its national tanker fleet to store oil at anchorage. That proportion has since increased, trade sources say.
"It just means they (Iran) don't have much more room for maneuver pretty much going forward. There is not much additional storage on or offshore," said Samuel Ciszuk, a consultant at KBC Energy Economics.
The United States and Europe have targeted Iran's oil trade to pressure Tehran to halt its disputed nuclear programme.
Washington will impose sanctions this week on financial institutions dealing with Iran's central bank, while Brussels will place an oil embargo on the country's oil trade. The EU's measures also prohibit European insurers, which provide cover for nearly all of the world's tanker fleet, from doing business with ships carrying Iranian crude.
Iranian tankers will be the main transporters of Iran's crude to its two top importers, China and India, once the sanctions come into effect on Sunday.
A senior NITC official told Reuters the firm has yet to take delivery of a 318,000 deadweight tonne tanker named "Safe", the first of 12 new supertankers the firm will manage under a $1.2 billion contract with Chinese shipyards. Delivery was initially scheduled for May.
"Delivery has been delayed because of the market. The market is not attractive for any ship owner," the NITC official said.
The Baltic Exchange's Dirty Tanker index fell to a 17-month low of 660 points on Monday, down nearly 30 percent in the last six months and hit by a glut of and slowing global oil demand growth, which has battered bottom lines.
Industry officials said the delay in delivery of the vessel was also due to Western sanctions, which have made it difficult for Iran to sell its crude.
"With their (Iran's) export capacity being reduced, they (NITC) probably do not want to take delivery of them right now because they may find it difficult to trade them and for people to accept their cargoes and get the vessels insured," said a senior ship industry official.
"They (NITC) might also have financing problems to pay for the delivery installments."
NITC has settled loans owed to French bank BNP Paribas this year, which industry sources said was close to $1 billion.
It was not clear when NITC will take the tanker, capable of carrying 2 million barrels of crude, nor whether delivery of the other vessels will also be delayed.
Another seven very large crude carriers (VLCCs) are scheduled for delivery by the end of this year from two Chinese shipyards, and the remaining four are expected to be commissioned by the end of 2013.
A senior official at China CSSC Holding's Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding Co Ltd, which has finished constructing NITC's new supertanker, said on Tuesday he was unaware of the delays.
The National Iranian Tanker company, now known as NITC, lost its ship insurance cover from European providers last year due to earlier sanctions. It secured alternative cover mainly in Asia and also in Iran from privately owned Kish P&I and has said it has $1 billion in cover to keep its existing 39-strong tanker fleet on the water.
Iranian oil exports this month have dropped to between 1.2 million and 1.3 million bpd, a decline of as much as 1 million bpd from last year, as customers in Asia and Europe stop or scale back purchases, industry sources say.
Of that, China and India will take around 700,000 bpd in July, according to industry sources.
"It seems it will only be handful of clients pretty much if you talk about term contracts who will be buying...with actual production rates going down. They will have to very quickly adjust in the coming one or two months," said KBC's Ciszuk.
"In the meantime we will see floating storage will continue to rise wherever they can find room." (Additional reporting by Chen Aizhu in Beijing; Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Erica Billingham)