NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India aims to cut Iranian crude imports by 15 percent this fiscal year, the oil secretary said on Tuesday, differing from the oil minister who recently said he wanted to hold the shipments at last year's levels.
Ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the United States last week, Oil Minister M. Veerappa Moily said Iranian imports should be held steady at 260,000 barrels per day (bpd) to save as much as $8.5 billion in foreign exchange as Tehran accepts partial payment in rupees.
However, Oil Secretary Vivek Rae, the Petroleum Ministry's top bureaucrat, said on Tuesday that India targets oil imports of around 220,000 bpd from Iran in the year through March 2014.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the shift in stance.
India publicly maintains it follows only United Nations sanctions, but it has been cutting imports from Iran along with other Asian countries to win waivers from U.S. sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate an end to its nuclear programme.
New Delhi's next 180-day waiver on U.S. sanctions come up for renewal in December.
Rae said Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals and Essar Oil - the only Indian refiners currently importing Iranian crude - will import about 80,000 bpd each this fiscal year.
Three other refiners - Hindustan Petroleum , Bharat Petroleum and Indian Oil Corp - can each import about 1 million to 1.5 million tonnes for the year, or about 20,000 bpd, Rae said.
In the fiscal year to end-March 2013, India imported around 260,000 bpd of oil from Tehran, down about 29 percent from the previous year and well below a 15-percent cut needed to qualify for a sanctions waiver.
According to Reuters estimates, based on what refiners have said are their import plans, India's oil imports from Iran could be as low as 190,000 bpd this fiscal year.
India imports about 4 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil or around 80 percent of what it uses. Iran ranked ninth among India's crude suppliers in August, down from sixth a year earlier.
Rae reiterated that Iran is reluctant to accept full payment for oil supplies in rupees, and that the two countries are exploring various payment methods.
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Tom Hogue and Jason Neely)