An oil rig is shown in this file photo.

South Africa imported no crude oil from Iran in July, customs data showed on Friday, a sign Pretoria is avoiding Iranian shipments until it can be certain to avoid European sanctions.

In May, imports from Iran stood at 285,524 tonnes, but since June, Africa's biggest economy has replaced shipments from Iran with crude from other suppliers, especially Saudi Arabia.

South Africa used to import a quarter of its crude from Iran but has come under Western pressure to cut the shipments as part of sanctions designed to halt Tehran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Imports of crude from Saudi Arabia stood at 966,607 tonnes, slightly lower than the 1.17 million tonnes recorded the previous month, with other supplies coming from Nigeria, Angola, United Arab Emirates, Israel and France. Total imports stood at 2.1 million tonnes.

Even though the United States granted South Africa an exemption from financial sanctions after cuts in Iranian imports in recent months, Pretoria was still facing problems because of sanctions from the European Union, which does not provide any waivers.

Following talks with the European Union earlier this month, Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said South Africa would send a delegation to Europe to explain the impact possible sanctions would have on fuel supplies in the country and the region and explore alternative solutions.

Energy Minister Dipuo Peters has said that South Africa was also 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.

It is to be seen whether South Africa will continue to keep imports from Iran at zero. The country already cut all shipments from that country in January this year but resumed them again the following month.

The United States will also be watching to see if South Africa continues to keep imports from Iran at bay.

When comparing monthly averages over a six-month period, South Africa imported around 249,115 tonnes of crude from Iran per month in the January to June period, compared with 282,688 tonnes in the preceding six months.

Some South African refineries are designed to treat Iranian-type crude only, and analysts say they will be hard-pressed to replace those supplies with other products.

Any disruption to crude imports could hit fuel supplies in South Africa, which has suffered shortages in the last year because of strikes and refinery problems.

Refiners in South Africa include Shell, BP, Total, Chevron, petrochemicals group Sasol , and Engen, which is majority-owned by Malaysian state oil group Petronas. - Reuters