LONDON/HAMBURG (Reuters) - Iran's state grains agency GTC has in the past week discreetly purchased around 400,000 metric tons of milling wheat, largely from the European Union, Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions, European traders said on Tuesday.
Some traders thought up to 500,000 metric tons could be involved.
Iranian wheat imports are usually handled by the private sector but the state had to step in and help with purchasing earlier this year because of the disruption to trade financing caused by Western sanctions aimed at Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Iran has in the past exported wheat but the trade sanctions were imposed after a bad harvest, forcing the country to quietly enter global markets and make substantial wheat purchases to help feed its large population.
Iran's Government Trading Corporation (GTC) continued its discreet method of contacting traders directly for offers rather than issuing purchasing tenders, making it difficult to glean details of total purchases.
Sanctions do not target food shipments, but they make it difficult for importers to obtain letters of credit or conduct international transfers of funds through banks.
The wheat was largely for September shipment. EU origins were thought to include Germany.
"They are buying without tenders almost every week, I think they're buying a lot of EU wheat," said a European trader. "(It is) mostly German."
Another European trader said: "Iran still has a large import requirement following its poor crop this year and the impact of international sanctions. It is making regular purchases, the most recent purchases were spread around the EU and Black Sea."
"Some German origin is involved along with some from Scandinavia and elsewhere in the Black Sea. Payment is difficult but possible."
Iran is still involved in talks about major barter deals for wheat with India and Pakistan.
On August 9 Pakistan agreed a price for 1 million metric tons of wheat it is ready to export to Iran in a barter for Iranian fertilizer and iron ore. India has said it is ready to export up to 3 million metric tons of wheat to Iran and is continuing talks.
However, traders were skeptical that the deals would be concluded due to Iran's zero tolerance of the grain fungal disease karnal bunt, present in both Pakistani and Indian wheat.
After buying aggressively in March and April, Iran's purchases slowed as its local crop was harvested. However, the GTC has been back in the market in recent weeks, making major wheat purchases earlier this month.
"These barter deals are talking a long time to settle and in the meantime I think Iran will purchase more internationally," a trader said.
Reporting by Sarah McFarlane and Michael Hogan; Editing by Anthony Barker