Well, the two men have spoken. On Friday, President Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as the latter was leaving for Tehran following a four day tour to New York to take part in the annual United Nations General Assembly. Today the New York Times reported that Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Dr. Nahavandian met on Tuesday with a group of prominent American businessmen (in the banking and energy sector) in New York. The subject was Iran will be ready for investment once/if the sanctions are lifted. Even Fox Business had some pieces on the removal of sanctions and even the cost the Iran sanctions are imposing on the US.
So the question everybody is asking is, are sanctions going to disappear?
Maybe so, but despite the lightning speed progress that we have witnessed in US-Iran relations, any sanctions relief will be a long drawn-out process. Depending on the pace of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, many things can change quickly. These can likely happen on two fronts:
1. Secondary Sanctions Against Iran. These are restrictions like those in the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) which penalize third countries (e.g., France, Japan, etc.) that invest beyond a certain amount in Iran’s energy sector. The President may seek to waive some of these sanctions for purposes of national interest. Other examples include the Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations (IFSR), which can impose penalties on third country banks that engage in certain dealings with Iran.
2. US Sanctions on Iran. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) could continue issuing general licenses (as it has been lately) that expand the window of what is allowed to be exported to Iran. This could take the form of allowing Iran to procure civilian aircraft and parts more easily, and allowing US persons to export services to certain non-sensitive sectors in Iran. OFAC could also remove some entities, like Iranian port entities and banks off the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.
Before we get carried away envisioning a sanctions reduction, the question remains – what can US persons do now? Well, there are a few windows that are now open (subject to strict limitations, including those on end-users, banking and shipping, among other things), such as:
1. Sale of certain communications equipment to Iran (e.g., laptops, tablets, mobiles, routers, etc.)
2. Sale of certain medicines, medical supplies, and food products (in some cases a license is needed, but not in others if you are within certain parameters); and
3. Registration of Intellectual Property (IP) in Iran (and vice-versa).
The realm of permitted trade with Iran is all subject to very strict restrictions and conditions, and any increase in trade (be it in the currently authorized arena or any spaces which will be created through relaxation) will require an exceptionally heightened need for compliance with all applicable regulations. The reason is two-fold – the laws may start changing quite dramatically and rapidly (as we’ve sen with Burma) and companies may find themselves more confused while at the same time wanting to make use of whatever channels they have to tap into the Iranian market. In order to prevent violations (such as going into prohibited territory such as facilitation, etc.) it will be critical that everybody knows the limits of what is allowed and all applicable terms and conditions imposed by law.
It remains to be seen if and how this trajectory in bilateral relations will continue, and it may take quite some time before normalcy is reestablished. For the time being, all eyes should be to compliance and making sure that you have a finger on the exact status of the law. Indeed, maybe the US government may allow Iran to be open for business, not only for third country companies, but for American ones as well. Until then, never forget compliance!