Uncovering the Chinese Purchasers of Iranian Oil [UPDATED January 31, 2023]

China is principally responsible for keeping the Iranian regime in business through oil purchases that have totaled $47 billion since President Joe Biden assumed office.  This is despite U.S. sanctions that were reimposed in 2019 with the stated aim of reducing Iranian oil exports to zero. China has proven the savior of Tehran by continuing to import millions of barrels of oil every single day. Chinese imports have likely exceeded those made when the trade was not subject to U.S. sanctions.

While UANI has successfully pinpointed the more than 200 foreign oil-carrying “Ghost Armada” ships facilitating the trade, it has been difficult to identify the specific buyers – until recently. In recent months UANI has obtained documentation offering major insight into who exactly is funding this illicit and uniquely lucrative trade.

The Purchasers

Data received and reviewed by UANI shows that Iranian oil is being imported by China’s officially non-state, semi-independent “teapot” petrochemical refiners.  Teapots were originally permitted to import crude, subject to centrally imposed quotas, starting in July 2015. Since then, China’s economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has granted tens of new licenses annually. Estimates of the number of teapots hover around 150.

Today, the teapots import approximately one-fifth of all China’s oil needs. Around 70% of China’s teapot oil processing takes place in the eastern coastal province of Shandong, south of Beijing and north of Shanghai. For Iranian oil purchases, the teapots manage to buy at steep discounts -- at least $4 a barrel below benchmark Brent. The Iranian origin of oil is also concealed, by rebranding as either Omani Crude, Iraqi Crude, Russian Urals, Bitumen Blend, Nemina, or Malaysian Blend.

The fact that teapots – rather than major state actors – would import the bulk of Iranian oil makes sense from China’s perspective. Since the U.S. has, in fact, sanctioned Chinese state-owned imports in the past, such as Zhuhai Zhenrong, the decision to import Iranian oil via dozens of small unaffiliated “non-state” firms helps obscure the Chinese government’s role and protect its own big firms from scrutiny, accountability, and attendant sanctions. By contrast, with their small size and limited business operations, teapots are both hard to uncover and not exposed to the U.S. financial system. In conjunction with the clear lack of U.S. enforcement, the threat of sanctions is, therefore, far less of a constraining factor. 

UANI has now obtained documents naming the purchasers of over 180 200 different shipments of Iranian oil to China dating back to December 2019. These shipments represent over 222 million barrels out of a total of over 711 million barrels of Iranian oil exported to China during the same period. Given the different risk factors between the few state importers and the vast number of independent teapots, we can reasonably infer from this 30% snapshot that the bulk of Iranian oil is indeed being imported by the teapots:

Available data - through January 2023 - shows the top teapot refinery purchasing Iranian crude is Lawen Namu. Lawen Namu received at least 29 different shipments of Iranian crude oil, branded as crude, Oman crude or Nemina. Together these shipments totaled approximately 39 million barrels of Iranian oil.

Lawen Namu is a trading company based at the key port of Qingdao in Shandong province. In January 2021, S&P Global noted that Lawen Namu’s oil imports had “jumped 212%” from the previous month, while it classified most of its imports as “blended grades” from Oman, West Africa, and Russia.”

The second biggest teapot importer is Shandong Shengxing Chemical Co., Ltd. (Shengxing). According to Global Trade Alert, Shengxing was granted its import license on May 23, 2018,  perhaps not coincidentally, just two weeks after President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Shengxing has received at least 23 different shipments of Iranian crude, branded as Oman crude, and Iraqi crude oil. Together these shipments totaled approximately 20 million barrels of Iranian oil. 

The third biggest teapot importer on our list is Shandong Dongfang Hualong Industry & Trading Group (Hualong) followed by Shangang Guomao. Hualong was granted its import license on the same day as Shengxing. Hualong has also received at least 17 different shipments of Iranian crude oil, branded as Russian Urals or as “Mal Blend.” Together these shipments totaled more than 14.7 million barrels of Iranian oil. Vessels that are carrying oil rebranded as “Mal Blend” typically export directly from Iran and then engage in a very short ship-to-ship (“STS”) transfer with a vessel in Iranian waters. This allows the vessel to receive new documentation claiming the oil is Malaysian, instead of Iranian.

In addition to documentation obtained by UANI, the Wikiran website cites a further six teapot refineries - Lihuayi Lijin Refining & Chemical Co. Ltd Shandong Tianhong Chemical Co. Ltd Henan Fengli Petro-Chemical Co. Ltd Shandong Kenli Petrochemical Co. Ltd Qirun Group Co. Ltd Dongying Lianhe Petrochemical Group Co. Ltd. (Fuhai Group) – reportedly accounting for a monthly delivery of four million barrels over a one year period and in apparent collaboration with the Turkish energy giant, ASB Group.

The full table of teapot refiners importing Iranian oil is listed in descending order from largest importer by barrels below. UANI will continue to update this chart as we receive more information on the purchasers of Iranian oil in China [Table Updated January 30, 2023]

Refinery

Number of Shipments

Branded/Rebranded As

# of Barrels

Vessels Involved

LAWEN NAMU

29

Crude, Oman and Nemina

39,785,151

 

 

 

 

 

ARZOYI, HERA 1, HECATE, ANTHEA,

MEMPHIS, ALANA,

BOREAS,

ELSA, NEREIDES, RHEA, ACHELOUS, FJORD SEAL (EX: FEYHA N), SUEZ HANS

SHENGXING

23

Oman, Iraq, Bitumen Blend and Mal Blend

20,055,240

MARTINA, VORAS (EX: ERMIS), ANASTASIA I, CHOLA QUEEN, AVENTUS I, BERG 1, EASTERN PRIDE, BRAVA LAKE, ASTRID I, NS CREATION, RANI, ROSSONERI, YONG DING, EVERSHINE (EX: CHAO XING

HUALONG

17

Urals, Mal Blend and Oman

14,702,279

 

MARIA GRACE, PHOENIX I, SIMBA, ASTRID I, SAGAR VIOLET (EX: LEOPARD), IVY, KARMA, BERG 1, YONG XING SHUN HANG, ANNICK, ROMA

SHANGANG GUOMAO

9

Crude, Forties, Malaysia and Bitumen Blend

13,899,882

 

 

GLORY FOREVER, LAUREN II, SIMBA, ANSHUN II, CARINA V, PROGRESS V, BREEZE V, PHOENIX I

QIHANG YUANYANG/QIHANG ENERGY

8

Fujairah and Mal Blend

11,602,117

PENTA I, UZOR, NEOFIT, CATHAY PHOENIX, VETER, ELVA, MM STRENGTH

YINGYU ENERGY

7

Mal Blend, Oman

10,442,050

GALA (EX: WINSOME), AMAK, GLORY FOREVER, PHOENIX I, BERG 1, PALMER, ISAIAH

XINTAI

12

Malaysia, Nemina, Bitumen Blend, ESPO, Oman

9,343,543

 

 

CHOLA QUEEN, MARTINA, RANI, BRIGHT SONIA, MARIA GRACE, ANASTASIA I, SHANAYE QUEEN

KEDAMA

5

Nemina & Mal Blend

6,890,728

HERA 1, MEMPHIS, ARZOYI, TIMMIUS

SHENCHI

8

Mal Blend

6,838,740

 

 

BRIGHT SONIA,

KARMA, DIAMOND, INNOVA, MARIA GRACE, RAIN DROP, VOLANS (EX: SUPER SAPPHIRE)

MEIJIANENG

4

Oman & Mal Blend

5,705,282

SIMBA,  ACHELOUS, ISAIAH, SNOW LOTUS

XINYUE

6

Crude, Mal Blend

4,778,595

PALMER, ABYSS, RAIN DROP, BRIGHT SONIA, MS ANGIA

KELIDA

5

Crude, Oman, Iraq and Mal Blend

4,739,543

CLYDE NOBLE, EMILIA (EX: CAROLINA), INNOVA, LADY SOFIA

BANFU ENERGY

3

Mal Blend, Nemina

4,732,148

ANTHEA, ALANA

OCEANIC

5

Bitumen Blend, TBA

2,923,916

PHOENIX I, DIAMOND, INGRID, TELSA (EX: TELLUS)

HENGLI PETROCHEMICAL

2

Crude

2,746,170

HEBE, SCORPIUS

XINCHI

2

Bitumen Blend and Fujairah

2,221,568

SKADI, STRIBOG

HAIWANGDA

2

Bitumen Blend, Mal Blend

2,651,910

BRIGHT SONIA, IVY

FURONGKANG

2

Oman & Mal Blend

2,619,644

IVY, BRIGHT SONIA

QINGHANG ENERGY

1

Fujairah

2,007,772

PAPA

CHANGFENG

1

Mal Blend

2,042,323

KANHA PRIDE

XIANNENG

1

Bitumen Blend

1,999,219

SCORPIUS

JINCHENG

1

Oman

1,993,678

ASTERIX

YUEYANG GUANSHENG

1

Bitumen Blend

1,938,792

AVITAL

HAO KUN

1

Bitumen Blend

1,921,423

PENTA I

KAIDING

1

Crude

1,843,156

BOREAS

HUAYOU

2

Mal Blend and Crude

1,810,641

EVERSHINE (EX: CHAO XING), DOLPHIN

GEA

2

Mal Blend

1,736,273

EMILIA (EX: CAROLINA), LADY SOFIA

SINOCHEM CHANGHE

2

Bitumen Blend, Oman

1,722,944

BERG 1, EVERSHINE (EX: CHAO XING

QICHENG

1

Oman

1,702,234

YONG DING

HUAJIN XIANGRUN

3

Mal Blend

1,669,967

PHOENIX I, MOCKINGBIRD, MARTINA

GAIDA

2

Crude

1,534,340

 

SIMBA, ARZOYI

XINZHUOYUE

2

TBA

1,501,419

ANASTASIA I, BRIGHT SONIA

YISHENGXIANG

1

Mal Blend

1,501,419

ISAIAH

DAOYANG

2

Bitumen Blend

1,136,828

DAISY 2, SPAR

CHAMBROAD

2

Bitumen Blend

1,291,249

EVERSHINE (EX: CHAO XING, BRIGHT SONIA

RONGHAI

2

Crude, Mal Blend

1,228,102

COLOSSUS, PARAMOUNT

HEBEI XINHAI

2

Crude & Mal Blend

1,240,603

MOCKINGBIRD (EX: HELIOS), VENICE

YINGJIRUI

1

Nemina

1,125,532

MEMPHIS

TAIFENG HAIRUN

2

Crude

1,104,875

DIAMOND (EX: YOLANDA), KARMA

QINGYUAN

2

Nemina

1,093,771

 

MEMPHIS

HANKUN ENERGY

1

Light Crude

1,090,550

ALANA

ZHEJIANG WUCHAN

1

Bitumen Blend

1,078,153

MEMPHIS

JULI

1

Mal Blend

1,065,341

GLORY FOREVER

KAIYI PETROCHEMICAL

1

Bitumen Blend

1,035, 729

SPAR

RUNCHENG

2

Bitumen Blend

1,034,667

AKSTA, HORNET

QIRUN

1

Mal Blend

1,020,518

PALMER

ZHONGCHEN

1

Bitumen Blend

1,014,631

OAKA

HENGFENG

1

Mal Blend

973,389

INNOVA

ZHONGYOU RUNHAI

1

Mal Blend

967,022

IVY

HAIKE

1

Mal Blend

955,190

YONG DING

GUANGJIN SHUNHE

2

Bitumen Blend

848,326

MARTINA, RANI

WANTONG

1

Crude

842,920

CRESTED (EX: AMENITY)

DINGQIAN

1

Bitumen Blend

771,823

ROSSONERI

GUANGHUI KAINENG

1

Mal Blend

745,762

EVERSHINE (EX: CHAO XING

DINGYI

1

Oman

740,349

ALBA SUN

HUANHAI ENERGY

1

Singma

719,500

LEVIATHAN

CGN

1

Mal Blend

717,867

CLYDE NOBLE

SHILONG

1

Crude

711,301

ROSSONERI

BEI ANG SI

1

Mal Blend

703,286

HESTIA

ZHOUSHAN JIAOTOU

1

Bitumen Blend

691,500

LEVIATHAN

HANYUAN ENERGY

1

Crude

684,399

VENICE

XINHAN

1

Crude

609,009

ABYSS

ZHONGJIAO

1

Crude

512,117

VULA (EX: POLAN)

SHANGNENG

1

Bitumen Blend

505,250

DIAMOND (EX: YOLANDA)

HONGRUN

1

Mal Blend

496,900

DAISY 2

EDEN

1

Mal Blend

419,403

DIAMOND (EX: YOLANDA)

YINGKE

1

Fuel Oil

265,464

DELPHI

 

 

 

 

 

Total

213

 

222,009,703

 

 

sHANDONG pRO
(Credit: Reuters Muyu Xu)