having cut purchases by 40 percent in the first 10 months of the year over the same period in 2011. South Korea imported an average 145,546 bpd from Iran in the year to end October, but after stopping purchases altogether in the middle of the year, refiners in the North Asian nation have once again stepped up buying.
In October, South Korea bought 186,451 bpd of Iranian oil, and the recent increase in purchases may slightly undermine Seoul's case among Washington lawmakers.
Japan, the other significant buyer of Iranian crude, had its waiver renewed in September and its purchases of Iranian crude were 38.4 percent lower in the first nine months of 2012 over the same period last year.
Although Japan's imports from Iran fell in October from September, they have risen since the middle of the year when purchases stopped amid concern over the measures to prevent European re-insurers, who dominate the global shipping industry, from offering coverage.
What is clear from looking at the big four Asian buyers of Iranian crude is that they made some effort to cut purchases, but seem in recent months to be happy to resume taking cargoes, albeit at lower volumes than in past years.
This tallies with the International Energy Agency's Nov. 13 report, which said Iranian exports rose to 1.3 million bpd in October from 1 million bpd the prior two months.
Asia's big four took 1.165 million bpd of Iran's October total, meaning that if the Western powers are looking to further squeeze Tehran, they will have to look at Asia to both inflict the pain and take the pain of finding alternate crude sources.
Given the seeming lack of progress on resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the ongoing defiant tone of Tehran's leaders, it seems that making the crude waivers tougher to obtain may only be a matter of time.
The comfort expressed by officials in Asia's top crude importers may well be short-lived.
Asian importers probably now have two reasons to hope for lower oil prices, firstly to help their own import bills and secondly, lower prices will probably be more effective than sanctions at cutting Iran's revenues, thereby putting further pressure on an already struggling economy.
(Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views
expressed are his own)