South Africa is talking to Tehran about the prospect for Iran to insure its crude oil cargoes, which can no longer be underwritten by European insurance firms due to sanctions, Energy Minister Dipuo Peters said on Tuesday.
Peters said Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim had met his Iranian counterpart two weeks ago to discuss ways of getting around the European clamp-down on insurance and reinsurance, part of Western sanctions to halt Tehran's disputed nuclear programme.
"They were discussing these sorts of issues," she told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Johannesburg.
A spokesman for South Africa's foreign ministry declined to provide further details.
Iran used to be South Africa's main source of crude, accounting for 30% of its imports, although Africa's biggest economy has halved its average monthly shipments from Iran this year to 280 000 t because of US diplomatic pressure.
South Africa has offset the cuts by increasing imports from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, Africa's top crude producer, but faces the prospect of no imports from Iran from July 1, when the European insurance curbs came into effect.
Around 90% of the world's tanker fleet is covered by Western protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs, which insure against personal injury and environmental clean-up claims.
Brussels has made clear it will not be offering unilateral exceptions to the sanctions - as the US has - but diplomats say Europe does not object to third-party states striking their own deals with Tehran to secure energy supplies.
"South Africa has a legitimate dependency issue," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters this week. "We want them to get off that, but in the meantime why not ask Tehran to pay for insurance? They are in a very good position to negotiate."
Faced with the same problem, Japan has provided sovereign guarantees for Iranian crude shipments, while India is allowing state refiners to import Iranian oil, but with Tehran arranging shipping and insurance from July 1.