By Clyde Russell, Reuters

It’s not hard to see why Saudi Arabia is reluctant to take the relatively modest step of freezing crude output unless Iran also joins the producer initiative to support oil prices.

The Saudis will be looking at the success the Iranians are having in winning back market share in key Asian markets and will correctly take the view that limiting their own output will merely allow Iran to continue boosting its exports.

Imports of Iranian oil by Asian customers hit a two-year high in February of 1.28 million barrels per day (MMbbl/d), according to Reuters calculations of government and tanker tracking data.

Looking at the breakdown of the figures, it becomes clear that Iran’s major success since the lifting of sanctions in the wake of its nuclear agreement with Western powers has been getting back into the Indian market.

India’s imports of Iranian crude were 215,800 bbl/d in February, up a massive 111% from the same month a year earlier.

It’s this trend that should worry the Saudis most, as it looks set to continue.

Tanker data suggests that India imported more than 500,000 bbl/d in March from Iran, a five-year high, as private refiner Reliance Industries resumed purchases from the Islamic republic for the first time in several years.

This may be an unusually high month, but Indian industry sources expect imports from Iran to be at least 400,000 bbl/d for the fiscal year that started on April 1.

If this level of imports is achieved, it will no doubt come at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, currently the top two suppliers to India.

The Saudis supplied about 942,000 bbl/d of oil to India in the first two months of 2016, up 32% on the year earlier period, according to tanker data, while Iraq shipped about 925,000 bbl/d, a gain of 81%.

Together, these two accounted for just over 40% of India’s total imports, making them the obvious target for a resurgent Iran, which used to be India's second-biggest supplier.

China Challenge

Iran is also having success in boosting its exports to South Korea, lifting them to 244,183 bbl/d in the first two months of 2016, a gain of 139% on the same period last year.

But the story is more mixed for China, Asia’s largest crude importer, and Japan, the third biggest.

Iran exported about 470,864 bbl/d to China in the January-February period, down 5.6% on the same period last year, and also down from the roughly 532,000 bbl/d recorded over the whole of 2015.

Japan bought 215,821 bbl/d from Iran in the first two months, up a modest 3.8% on the same period a year earlier.

The apparent lack of success in regaining market share in China and Japan shows that Iran isn’t having it all its own way since the lifting of sanctions.

Getting back market share may involve hard bargaining and a willing to be more aggressive on pricing and other terms than competitors.

But what it also shows is that the Asian crude market remains extremely competitive, which argues against any sustained price rally in the absence of producer action.

The meeting of producers called by Qatar for April 17 is unusual insofar as it will bring together both members and non-members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

But with the Saudis having indicated that they will be unwilling to freeze their output unless other major producers, including Iran, do the same, the chances of success are limited.

This is especially the case since the Iranians have said that while they will attend the meeting in Doha, they won't necessarily join in talks about holding output at current levels.

Probably the only workable compromise is for the Saudis and other producers to recognize that Iran should be allowed to build back up to its pre-sanctions exports of about 2.5 million bpd before it has to join an output freeze.

This is about 300,000 bbl/d above what Iran is currently exporting, meaning there would be more oil reaching an already well-supplied market before any output freeze is likely to be agreed.