* West African crude replacing Iranian shipments to India, China
* Shippers can earn more on longer routes - Nordic American CEO
* Nordic American seeks to preserve dividend payouts
By Krishna N Das
March 20 (Reuters) - Oil tanker owners are cushioning the impact of Iranian trade restrictions by shipping crude over greater distances to some of Asia's biggest economies, the founder of Nordic American Tankers Ltd said on Wednesday.
Chief Executive Herbjorn Hansson said Western sanctions on doing business with Iran had led to an increase in oil shipments from West African countries to energy-hungry China and India -longer routes that generate bigger revenues for shipping firms.
Tanker demand is expressed in "ton-miles", the amount of oil transported in tankers multiplied by the distance over which the oil is moved.
"It takes more (ton-miles) to ship oil from West Africa to China than from Iran to China," Hansson said in an interview. "I would not overestimate the impact of the sanctions on Iran."
Western sanctions were introduced last year to choke off funding for Iran's nuclear program. As part of these sanctions, the United States requires buyers of Iranian crude oil to reduce imports or face exclusion from the U.S. financial system.
India, the second-largest buyer of Iranian crude, is set to halt all crude imports from the Islamic republic because insurance companies have said they would no longer cover the refineries that process this oil.
Industry sources say China, the biggest buyer of Iranian crude, is expected to cut imports by up to 10 percent this year, following a 21 percent drop in 2012 due to a contract dispute and shipping problems caused by the sanctions.
"They need to find oil from other places," Norwegian-born Hansson, 65, told Reuters by telephone from Oslo. Along with his family, he owns 5.7 percent of Bermuda-based Nordic American.
The company's 20 tankers are moving largely between China and India and Angola, Nigeria and the Middle East, Hansson said.
Asian oil imports from oil-producing countries in West Africa are expected to rise slightly to 1.68 million barrels per day in March from the previous month, according to data based on traders' ship tracking compiled by Reuters.
Nordic American's shares have risen 14 percent this year, closing at $9.98 on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, compared with an 8 percent gain in the Thomson Reuters United States Oil & Gas Transportation Services Index.
The company is one of few in the shipping industry to have paid dividends throughout a period of escalating costs and low freight rates. It has paid a dividend for 62 consecutive quarters and Hansson said he was "hopeful" of keeping this up.
An oversupply of ships, the result of a spending spree by owners in the years before economies worldwide hit the rocks, has sent rates tumbling and cut into profitability. But Hansson said he saw "some positive signs on the horizon".
"The potential of the Far East has been underestimated," he said, citing relatively low per capita oil consumption in China versus the United States.
Whatever happens, Hansson - an avid reader of Scandinavian crime novels - said his company would observe international trade rules and would not pursue lucrative but risky rates on offer to ship goods not subject to sanctions into Iran.
Asked about a risk factor included in the company's annual filing with U.S. regulators, which said that, from time to time, its vessels call on ports in countries subject to restrictions, Hansson said this "almost never happens".
The filing, dated March 19, also stated that Nordic American did not do any business last year with Cuba, Syria or Iran.
"In the last two years, we may have been to Iran one time, but we never infringe rules," he said.
Rival Capital Product Partners LP said in a filing in February that its ships docked 10 times at Iranian ports last year out of 800 total calls worldwide. (link.reuters.com/gys76t)
The ships were sub-let by a company that hired them from Capital Product. The vessels making these port calls were transporting either vegetable oils or molasses, which are not subject to sanctions, the company said in the filing. (Editing by Robin Paxton)