(Adds details on imports and background)
* Feb imports at 552,613 bpd, up 6 pct on yr, down 2.1 pct on mth
* Jan-Feb imports at 558,877 bpd, up 36.2 pct on yr
By Judy Hua and David Stanway
BEIJING, March 21 (Reuters) - China’s February crude oil imports from Iran rose 6 percent from a year ago to 552,613 barrels per day (bpd), customs data showed on Friday, keeping imports in 2014 close to levels before Western sanctions were applied more than two years ago.
Iran’s exports have been rising the past four months, ever since the breakthrough November deal that eased some sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
Under the temporary deal, Iran’s exports are supposed to be held at an average 1 million barrels bpd for the six months to July 20. But shipments to Asia have topped that level at least since November, according to customs and ship tracking data.
The increases have brought an official U.S. reminder to India that purchases are to be held at end-2013 levels. China may also be risking a crackdown if Washington feels economic pressure is being relaxed too quickly.
China’s oil shipments from Iran in the first two months of 2014 were at 558,877 bpd, up 36.2 percent from a year ago.
On a daily basis, China’s February imports of Iranian oil fell 2.1 percent from January’s 564,536 bpd.
The month-on-month fall is partly linked to data distortions as companies tend to book cargoes in advance of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday that began on Jan. 31 this year.
The February crude arrivals are higher than a loading schedule seen by Reuters showing China lifted about 492,677 bpd in oil and condensate from Iran during January.
In a sign of growing impatience in Washington with higher Iranian exports, Indian government sources said this month that their refiners would have to cut oil purchases from Tehran by nearly two-thirds from first-quarter levels after a U.S. energy official reminded them that Iranian import volumes were not to rise.
Tehran denies claims from Washington and other Western capitals that its nuclear programme is aimed at building an atomic weapon, saying it is for power generation.
China’s Iranian oil imports have been rising in part due to condensate shipments by independently-run petrochemical firm, Dragon Aromatics, which has since the second half of 2013 been buying condensate from Iran as feedstock.
For 2014, China may have trouble holding down its Iranian oil imports as state-run trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp is negotiating a new condensate contract, Reuters has reported. (Additional reporting by Fayen Wong in SHANGHAI; Editing by Tom Hogue)