Telecommunications and the Iran Protests – a Sanctions Response from the Trump Administration?

Many have been caught by surprise by widespread anti-government protests in Iran that started in Mashhad last week ostensibly over food prices and have now engulfed the whole country, going on to their 9th straight day.  The Trump administration has indicated moral support for the protestors’ right to peaceful demonstration and their gripes against the Iranian government. “Support,” however, is very vague, and some are demanding that the United States do more to demonstrate support. In the absence of diplomatic relations between the two states, how could this support work out? The answer may very likely lie in our sanctions laws.

Much has been said about decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called “nuclear deal” entered into by the United States and the “P5+1” nations of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China in 2015, implemented in January 2016. But that’s not the real extent (or potentially even the focus) of sanctions as a foreign policy tool in U.S. policy against Iran.

The United States continues to maintain a very robust sanctions architecture in place against Iran, covering the vast majority of trade between so-called “U.S. persons,” which include U.S. companies, as well as citizens and permanent residents wherever located, and others are physically in the United States.  Despite the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), a large number of “secondary” sanctions remain in place. These are limitations whereby the U.S. can place limits on the U.S. activities of third country actors (such as European or Asian companies) that engage in certain transactions with Iran or specific Iranian entities that may be sanctioned by the United States.

So, given recent events in Iran, what could the Trump administration change with respect to sanctions?


Information & Communications Technology (IT) 

The Iranian government’s restrictive internet policies have been a key challenge to Iranian civil society on many fronts.  Despite the presence of nearly 50 million smart phones in Iran, the government continually throttles the internet and blocks sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter (even though many Iranian officials maintain a presence on these sites), and there have been recent reports of blocking Instagram and Telegram, a messaging app hugely popular in Iran.

These actions are not new, and in 2013, in a bid to improve the access of people in Iran to telecommunications with one another and the outside world, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued General License D (now General License D-1).  This “General License” authorizes the lawful exportation to Iran of many U.S. origin telecommunications goods and services, such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops and accessories without having to obtain OFAC approval, provided the sales are executed in a lawful manner, which includes restrictions on end-use, end-user, and receipt of payment. While GL D-1 is expansive in what it allows, it is not without limitations, and there has been talk of expanding the scope of and activities it authorizes, or at least encouraging the U.S. government to expand it.

Although U.S. companies can export many fee-based and non-fee based apps to Iran, they cannot host a wide array of Iranian web content, such as e-commerce sites or related apps (for example those allowing users in Iran to purchase goods).  This is consistent with U.S. sanctions policy of limiting Iran’s commercial activity with U.S. persons.  The effect is that lawful U.S. apps become more difficult to access from Iran as companies like Apple and Google have closed their app stores to Iranians, presumably out of fear that Iranians could download certain apps that are not permitted and that the U.S. tech giants may host Iranian apps that they are not allowed to. Therefore, a lot of what is allowed to happen simply isn’t available, or at least not with ease.  OFAC could clarify its position on such activities in the coming days and weeks, making it easier for companies to export these goods and services.

Second, OFAC could expand General License D-1 to also include the exportation of items like Apple TV, Roku and the Amazon Fire, which will allow individuals in Iran with easier access to foreign television feeds. Given the Iranian government’s practice of jamming signals from foreign news channels like the BBC Persian or Voice of America (VOA), not to mention fairly regular drives to collect illegal rooftop satellite dishes, this move could be seen as a way to expand people’s access to foreign media and receive more varied news. It could also enable the provision of services to Iran enabling the exportation of internet and television connectivity to individuals in Iran, enabling them to bypass the throttled internet.

Sanctioning Iran’s State-Owned Television & Radio

The other potential move by the U.S. government could be to reimpose currently waived sanctions against IRIB, which maintains a constitutional monopoly on television and radio.  Remember a few years back when the United States was imposing new sanctions legislation against Iran in rapid succession.  One issue of concern particularly after the 2009 Iranian election was the use of Iranian television to broadcast mass trials and allegedly false confessions Following implementation of the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 (the IFCA), the IRIB was added to the OFAC Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, effectively a “black list” of parties around the world that U.S. persons are generally barred from dealing with.  This originated from the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act (aka the “Threat Reduction Act” or “TRA”), which, among other things, called for drastic expansions of U.S. broadcasting to Iran and Persian-language content and to overcome the regime’s attempts to jam outside broadcasting signals.

The IFCA notably has a provision (§ 1244) calling for the designation on the SDN list of certain non-U.S., non-Iranian persons, such as Asian and European companies if they under some circumstances “knowingly provides significant financial, material, technological, or other support to, or goods or services in support of any activity or transaction on behalf of or for the benefit of” an Iranian SDN such as IRIB. In other words, the U.S. government can sanction a European company for providing material satellite services to the IRIB if there is no U.S. waiver or other authorization in place.  That would cause an effective blocking of that entity from the United States economy and banking system.

In 2014 and 2015, before the JCPOA, the Obama administration issued a waiver on certain “secondary sanctions” on IRIB, which punish third country companies that engage in certain transactions with the entity.  This waiver enabled IRIB to deal with satellite companies around the world to broadcast its signals, many but not all of which reached far beyond Iran’s borders.  By revoking this waiver, the U.S. Department of State could substantially paralyze IRIB’s ability to broadcast not only outside Iran but even within its borders.

But didn’t the JCPOA get rid of these limitations? Not really. As part of the JCPOA, many activities subject to sanctions in the IFCA were waived, but only for Iranian entities in the “annex” to the JCPOA, which does not include the IRIB.  Given this, the IRIB remains subject to secondary sanctions and the Department of the Treasury has wide discretion to designate entities violating the spirit of §1244.

Alternatively there are other possibilities OFAC and the Department of State may pursue, such as sanctioning more human rights violators, blocking any assets of theirs coming into the hands of U.S. persons among other things.

The past 15 or so years have seen increasing bipartisan support for sanctions as a non-violent tool to implement U.S. policy objectives and effectuate a change in behavior by sanctioned entities. It is likely sanctions may be the United States’ first formal response to recent events.

Posted in Iran, OFAC, Sanctions

No, the Iran Deal is not over…

The long awaited policy statement by President Trump on Iran along with the “decertification” of the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) finally happened yesterday.  What does it all mean?

shutterstock_101051161 This blog is really focused on legal issues and is not a political blog, so I will keep the political discussion short. The plan announced yesterday strives to be a comprehensive approach that addresses U.S. policy on Iran in totality, beyond simply the nuclear program and the scope of the JCPOA.  Notably, the United States and Iran did not ever reached a “grand bargain” on bilateral matters, and the JCPOA did not address longstanding U.S. grievances against Iran, which largely served as the basis for the main body of U.S. sanctions against Iran, including the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR), which has many comprehensive restrictions on dealings by U.S. persons with Iran. In effect the nuclear deal in many respects dialed back the clock to 2005 or 2006, where Iran was under many, albeit less, sanctions (the fact that the world of business and compliance has changed markedly since then notwithstanding, which is part of the reason Iran has not been able to benefit as much from sanctions relief as it had hoped).

Decertification is not the end of the deal, at least not for now.  The White House’s press release has some new information but much of this appears more of a pronouncement than really new policy.  Effectively, the President has punted the issue to Congress, which can vote to modify certain legislation it passed when the JCPOA was implemented. That legislation placed certification requirements on the President, whereby confirmation had to be given every 90 days. That may be ultimately removed. Therefore, the deal is still standing.

As for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), it was already sanctioned before, so the impact of the additional designation (under Executive Order 13224, which is focused on counterterrorism) will be arguably minimal (notably, many entities placed on any type of restriction by the United States typically face an effective “shutdown” in dealings with foreign companies, however light the actual restrictions may be).  The IRGC has been under so many designation one has to wonder who was actually willing to do business with it before yesterday’s decision.

In the long run, this should have little effect on the ITSR as that body of regulations was largely unchanged by the JCPOA. This means people-to-people communications, medical exports, food exports and IT exports will most probably remain intact.

What remains to be seen is how the new policy will shape carveouts (referred to as “general licenses” or “exemptions”) in the ITSR. We may see more willingness by OFAC to approve activities in spaces like telecommunications and informational technology (IT) exports, as such technologies can expand the access of Iranians to the outside world. We may see other similar changes elsewhere.  This is not comparable to what the Administration is doing on the North Korean sanctions front.  That said, like other actions by the U.S. government, the ripple effects of such policy modifications, meaning the “psychological” impact, can be much farther reaching on the business and broader communities than what is actually mandated by law.


Posted in Uncategorized

ExxonMobil’s Sanctions Penalty and the Lesson on Specially Designated Nationals

OFAC slapped a $2 million penalty on ExxonMobil on Thursday for alleged violations of U.S. sanctions on Russia. Specifically the allegations were that during a narrow, 9-day window in May 2014, the U.S.-based oil giant entered into several contracts with Russian energy company Rosneft OAO where the signatory was Igor Sechin, who was named by OFAC as a Specially Designated National (SDN).  (It’s worthy to note that ExxonMobil then turned around and brought suit, alleging some similar arguments to those my law firm Akrivis Law Group successfully made on behalf of Epsilon Electronics in California in its landmark case challenging a $4 million penalty by OFAC.)  Beyond the constitutional arguments, this case highlights the taint of the SDN in transactions.


SDNs, as you probably know, are non-U.S. entities (companies, organizations, or natural persons) who have been designated by OFAC for varying reasons.  The list, which is effectively a “black list” for U.S. persons, numbers well into the hundreds of pages (it is almost reminiscent of the old white pages the phone company issued every year).  While many are in sanctioned countries like Iran, Cuba, and Syria, many are in countries with which the United States maintains very robust trade and diplomatic ties. U.S. persons are generally barred from dealing with such entities and these entities’ assets that come into possession of U.S. persons must generally be blocked.  Since there are many ways to get on to the SDN list (in large part through Executive Orders), not all designations are treated equally. In fact, there are sometimes carveouts for some SDNs.

Despite these nuances ion the list, many parties around the world, specifically banks, often adopt a “de-risking” approach towards SDNs – meaning they will generally not comb through the laws and enable or execute those transactions that may be exempted under law (even if they are specifically licensed by OFAC to do so) – rather, they prefer to simply not deal with such entities, even if a transaction does not include a single U.S. element. Long story short, it can be a fast downward spiral for any company, organization, or individual on a truly global scale. Getting off the list can be very challenging and time consuming.

So what happened here? Even though Rosneft was not itself on the SDN list, OFAC’s position was that ExxonMobil effectively imported the services of a designated entity, specifically Mr. Sechin. The dealing with Rosneft itself was not necessarily an issue per se, but having an SDN sign the contracts on behalf of Rosneft was.  In other words, Sechin’s signature on the contract and other work he did in furtherance of constituted a prohibited dealing for ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil tried to argue that White House statements at the time indicated that these types of transactions were not problematic (although OFAC published a somewhat responsive Frequently Asked Question or “FAQ” on the same issue vis-à-vis the Burmese sanctions). White House or government agency statements can be very useful in determining a compliance approach or strategy, but ultimately the actual law is what’s written in the books.

Beyond the issue of policy versus law, again, the most important point here arguably is that the presence of an SDN can taint an entire transaction. OFAC licenses for certain activities with sanctioned countries often state that certain entities remain off limits. Therefore even if an activity is specifically licensed by OFAC or subject to a general license, one must be very careful to avoid SDNs in any aspect of the transaction (unless there is an applicable carveout or the specific license clearly states that you are allowed to deal with a given SDN for a particular purpose). The presence of an SDN may not necessarily invalidate all activities surrounding a given transaction.  However, it can not only constitute a violation of applicable OFAC regulations, but also lead to money or other assets being blocked.

The lesson here is particularly important in countries like Russia where many designated entities are persons or companies of extremely elevated importance in those countries’ economies. The SDN “taint” typically trickles down to any entity they own or control (think subsidiaries), which is why you should always do your due diligence and care to make sure all aspects of your transaction, not just the one that’s the focus of your attention, is compliant with applicable OFAC regulations.




Posted in Uncategorized

A Major Victory in Massive OFAC Sanctions Penalty Case

I’m proud of my firm and my team’s big win that came out yesterday in a major, widely-watched sanctions case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Read our last alert to see why win is important not just for our client but for the trade community.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled today in favor of our client Epsilon Electronics, Inc., in a case against the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the primary U.S. government body administrating trade restrictions against sanctioned countries like Iran and Cuba. This case is already the subject of exceptional interest and significance for the trade compliance community. The ruling is particularly timely in the aftermath of the agreement over Iran’s nuclear program resulting in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which led to partial but not complete sanctions relief for Iran.

shutterstock_88243024Today’s victory was a direct result of the zealous efforts of Akrivis Partner Teresa N. Taylor, who spearheaded the litigation strategy for Epsilon on this case and very successfully argued in favor of Epsilon in litigation and at oral argument on November 9, 2016. Ms. Taylor worked very closely with Farhad R. Alavi, Akrivis Managing Partner, on the technical interpretation of the complex web of U.S. sanctions and the commercial aspects surrounding the international transactions at issue.

It should be emphasized that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit is arguably the nation’s second most influential court and commonly referred to as the “mini Supreme Court,” both because it sends more cases to the U.S. Supreme Court than any other federal appellate circuit, and as many recent Supreme Court appointments have come from this court’s bench.

Factual Context

Epsilon Electronics is a small business in southern California in the automotive after-market business. In July 2014, OFAC imposed a massive $4,073,000 penalty on Epsilon, alleging that a series of shipments by the company to Asra International Corporation, LLC in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) were in fact destined for end-use in Iran, which would signify a breach of U.S. sanctions. $1.25 million of this penalty stemmed from five shipments in 2012 to Asra International, wherein OFAC imposed the maximum $250,000 statutory penalty at the time per shipment, although some of these shipments being only several hundred dollars in value and even though Asra International had a retail store in Dubai that was selling Epsilon’s products. This penalty was imposed despite Epsilon’s cooperation with OFAC during its investigation and it being a modestly sized family enterprise of limited sophistication.
This case turned on the issue of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), U.S. sanctions on Iran, and U.S. Constitutional Claims. It is exceptionally challenging to bring APA cases before federal courts after a final agency action. Courts have relied on prior cases, which establish that federal agencies such as OFAC, the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are subject matter experts in their respective domains and that judges should give such agencies a high degree of deference and not second-guess their rulings on subject-specific matters. This premise holds that courts should only review federal agency actions when they are “arbitrary and capricious.” Akrivis argued this on Epsilon’s behalf, among many other claims.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit today remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to remand the matter to OFAC for further consideration of the five alleged 2012 violations, and calculation of the total monetary penalty imposed for all liability findings. The Court’s order also remanded OFAC’s determination that Epsilon’s five shipments to Asra International in 2012 violated the regulations. OFAC’s determination that Epsilon had reason to know that the 2012 shipments were specifically intended for reexport to Iran was not supported by substantial evidence and was therefore arbitrary and capricious, as OFAC did not explain in the Administrative Record why e-mails between Epsilon and Asra regarding Asra’s stores in Dubai were not credible evidence.

What this means for Compliance

Beyond the many benefits accruing to Epsilon, today’s opinion is a standard bearer for the trade compliance community as it establishes several key precedents. First, as OFAC is rarely challenged and because OFAC’s holdings are not fully available for public access it offers a crucial, rare window into the inner workings of U.S. sanctions policy. Second, the case also demonstrates that agency enforcement actions can be subject to greater judicial review, which could lead to enhanced transparency in the dialogue between alleged violators and the government in the penalty phase at the administrative level. Third, it establishes that the government does not need to prove that goods or services actually reached the sanctioned destination, but it must clearly establish reason to know that such exports were intended specifically for the that destination.

The Epsilon case is particularly important for U.S. businesses exporting to the Middle East, particularly the UAE because it reveals OFAC’s interpretations of key regulations, which will help companies chart out key compliance strategies. Further, the case’s importance extends far beyond the Middle East to companies doing business overseas, particularly regions with higher sanctions risks exposure, be they in the Persian Gulf region, Russia, Cuba, or elsewhere. This explains why this case has been the subject of numerous articles and presentations around the world.

The positive outcome in this case is a direct result of the hard work and diligence of Ms. Taylor, an experienced litigator and former federal law clerk. Prior to joining Akrivis, Ms. Taylor served in the office of the Chief Counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and practiced at a leading global law firm. Ms. Taylor’s experience includes extensive work on federal litigation and investigatory matters involving U.S. trade laws. Ms. Taylor’s experience has helped Akrivis build a highly sophisticated federal white collar practice.

Mr. Alavi, also previously with leading global law firms, is a frequent commentator appearing in international media on U.S. sanctions and trade laws. He regularly advises U.S. and foreign companies on related complex compliance and cross-border commercial matters. More broadly, Akrivis’s team has long been established as a go-to firm for U.S. trade compliance, particularly the area of U.S. sanctions.

Akrivis Law Group, PLLC would also like to thank its team for their hard work, as well as Abu Dhabi-based attorney John P. McGowan, Jr., who submitted an amicus brief on behalf of his company JPM Legal Advisors Worldwide Ltd., and his counsel.

Citation: Epsilon Electronics, Inc. v. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, et al., No. 1:16-5118 slip op. (D.C. Cir. May 26, 2017)

The opinion can be ready by clicking on this link on the Court’s website.  A PDF version of this alert is available here.

The text of this post has been copied verbatim from Akrivis Law Group’s website.


Posted in Uncategorized

Aligning Expectations: Are we moving towards an Anti-Corruption Compliance Standard?

Like other areas, developing compliance with anti-corruption regulations is a tall endeavor whose requirements can vary based on a number of factors, including jurisdiction, size, and sophistication of the company.  The emerging International Standards Organization (ISO) 37001:2016 standard for Anti-Bribery Management Systems, issued in October 2016, may be a significant move towards some clarity and standardization in this area, right? Maybe, but not so fast.


A number of jurisdictions such as Singapore have adopted the ISO 37001 standard, and Microsoft announced earlier this year it will be the first public U.S. company to adopt the standard. Does this mean we will soon be seeing “compliance in a box” solutions that could help companies large and small circumvent the need for customized compliance programs? Probably not.

First off, the ISO 37001:2016 standard only covers bribery and not other activities like fraud prevention or anti-money laundering (AML).

Second, the jury is out on whether this standard will become an worldwide industry standard like ISO 9001 (quality management) or whether the early interest we are seeing will fizzle out.  US commentators think that while the guidance is a useful tool its core principles are effectively the same as what you already see in the US Department of Justice (DOJ), US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) Guidelines, and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  There are also some minor differences.  For example, the standard does not allow for the facilitation (or so-called “grease”) payments, which can under certain circumstances be acceptable under the FCPA (but not the UK Bribery Act).

That said, having an independent third party audit and provide a certification for a company’s anti-bribery management system may carry appreciable weight with US regulators.  It remains to be seen what the DOJ and SEC say on this particular point. That being said, the DOJ did in February release guidance on the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs.

But how can you define a standard when governments tend to look at many, not to mention different, factors?

Interestingly, for countries like Singapore and Peru (and others that follow them) it may be that government contractors or those seeking public tenders may eventually need to certify that they are ISO 37001 compliant to even bid for projects in certain countries.  In drafting contracts for international counterparties it may be less controversial to incorporate compliance provisions referencing a neutral ISO standard that say, referring to the FCPA.

While following a standard could be a great place to start, the reality is that anti-corruption laws are national in nature and not international, even though effort has been made to harmonize some of these laws.  A solid compliance program will adopt policies that are tailored to the requirements of the local jurisdiction but with an eye to establishing an over-arching “best practice” standard that would not cause reputational damage for the company in other countries.  Importantly, compliance programs also have an entirely proprietary dimension – they must cover key exposure points, which can vary not only from country to country but business to business and business line to business line.

For now, it is clear that no one size fits all, and attention to domestic nuances remains critical for compliance with anti-corruption requirements.

Note: Eric Ubias (Senior Counsel, Akrivis Law Group, PLLC) contributed to this post.

Posted in Uncategorized

Personal Remittances – More regulated than you may think

Chalk this one up as one more sign of how granular U.S. sanctions on Iran still are and why you should still be careful.

We recently helped a client obtain an OFAC license to close out a bank account in Iran and transfer the funds to the United States.  Most of the money was sent from a third country exchanger (sarafi), but a very small amount (under $10,000) was remaining.  This week, an email came asking if the client could have her brother hand carry the cash to the United States, rather than having to send it over via a third country exchange.  This is something that probably happens daily, if not hourly.

Personal, non-commercial remittances (or so-called “family remittances”) are among some of the lesser regulated funds transfers between the US and Iran. Individuals can send funds for their family (like gifts) in unlimited amounts, between both countries, provided the transfer meets all applicable provisions of US law, for example, no sanctioned banks, or ensuring the funds come into the US through a third country (like the UAE or China).  US persons can even hand carry cash remittances for family in Iran, such as someone from the US taking $1,000 for their mother there.

But it effectively stops there. You can hand carry cash to Iran, so long as you’re not carrying it on behalf of somebody else. Meaning, your sister can’t give you $1,000 to take with you to Iran to give to your mother.  The converse (hand carrying for someone else from Iran to the US) is also true – it’s not allowed.  This was confirmed to us via email by the OFAC Licensing Officer responsible for the above-mentioned license. Such transfer needs to be specified in the license request filed with OFAC and therefore such authorization will be provided in any subsequent license based on that request.  And that’s just one example of many.

You could say that current sanctions mean that dealing with Iran, even on a personal level, is kind of like walking along 6 inches away from an electrical fence. You’re OK so long as you don’t touch the fence, but if you do, a whole set of problems can arise. Oftentimes, transactions that are otherwise legal are effectively tainted by our own clients (before they retain us!), meaning a transfer, if done right from the beginning, may not need an OFAC license, but the client (or a relative or agent in Iran) may wind up doing something along the way that makes the client need to obtain a license.  Therefore, seeking compliance is not something you do in the final phase but from the get-go..

This example highlights that individuals seeking to engage in a financial transaction should consider all aspects of the transaction and should plan beforehand. The premise of legalities and authorizations in OFAC is based not just on the underlying transaction (meaning what you did to get that money, like sell a property or receive a gift) but also how that transaction was carried out (who the parties involved are, what banks are involved, how the money gets to you in the US, etc.). Lesson learned – don’t assume and take things for granted. At the end of the day, you’re still talking about Iran, which remains (contrary to the belief of some) subject to the most robust sanctions regime in US history.

Cleaning up is far more difficult and costly than preventing.

Posted in Uncategorized

OFAC Licensing for…Conferences?

One morning in February I woke up to see an email from someone at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Law inviting me to speak at a conference there titled “The Impact of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran,” to be held at the university in April.  The conference was sponsored by the university, the Carlsberg Foundation and another Danish organization.  The university would be kind enough to provide my airfare and accommodations.  Other speakers included a Danish sanctions lawyer (who would be my co-panelist), academics from Europe and beyond, the Danish Ambassador to Tehran, and the Iranian Ambassador to Denmark.  As I travel quite a bit, time in Washington is a precious commodity.  But this was hard to pass up.  Within days I decided I wanted to attend.  While I planned weeks in advance, I wound up getting my ticket less than a week before I left as my attendance was unclear until almost the last minute.  Why? U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Denmark - 2017

What do Iran sanctions have to do with speaking at a conference in Europe?  This is a particularly relevant question as there now, post nuclear-deal, many Iran-related symposia internationally.  What’s wrong with talking about Iran? Don’t U.S. persons talk to the media about Iran all the time?

One concern was that the conference was about Iran after the JCPOA but with a bit of what some may construe as a commercial angle.  Some Danish companies would be in attendance as they were interested to know about Iran’s business and political climate.  While US attorneys can advise foreign companies on sanctions with Iran, we cannot help them do business, meaning, we can’t advise them on how to circumvent sanctions.  This is at the crux of “facilitation.”  Even though I would just be talking about US law, my attendance and participation at this conference could be seen as helping facilitate the conference, which was not entirely but in part geared towards some aspects of Danish business related in Iran.

While that is a solid legal argument if I may so myself, OFAC’s issue was evidently something else, which I had also spotted. Iran’s Ambassador to Denmark was to also speak at the conference and potentially he and other Iranian Foreign Ministry personnel would be attending.  Talking in front of such people in the conference could be seen as a prohibited exportation of services to the Iranian Government (we can under certain limited circumstances obtain certain OFAC licenses to advise such entities on US sanctions laws). Even though my panel discussion would still be short and about the U.S. perspective on Iran post-sanctions, it could still be construed as a provision of a “service.”  Notably, § 560.554(b) of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (the “ITSR”) provides:

[T]he exportation, reexportation, sale, or supply of services directly related to the sponsorship by a U.S. person of a public conference or other similar public event in a third country that is attended by persons who are ordinarily resident in Iran, other than the Government of Iran, . . . is authorized, provided that attendance and participation at the conference or other similar public event is open for the public and that the conference or

Well, looks like the Government of Iran would be in attendance.  I therefore filed for a specific license. OFAC was exceptionally gracious and gave me one with ease, thankfully being very mindful of the imminent conference date. I went, spoke, and really enjoyed Denmark, its cultural offerings, and wonderful people. More on that in a later post.

But why is my experience important? For one, it again shows how far-reaching the sanctions regulations are, particularly for Iran deal supporters and critics who very wrongfully think all business between the US and Iran is now lawful.  Second, this is incredibly timely – think of all the conferences that have crept up around Europe, the United States, and the Middle East (including Iran) focused on Iran business– effectively “meet and greets” between people from within Iran and others outside, be they businessmen interested in doing a deal, or just simply to network. Now obviously, networking in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, neither is basic personal communication, but to attend and present at an Iran-focused forum where Iranian government officials would be in attendance is problematic.  This is not to mention facilitation, which could also be a major issue.

All this said, although OFAC does clearly not want U.S. persons to engage in unlawful commerce with Iran, it generally does maintain a favorable policy on people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.  This is likely why my license was issued.   My hope is that my experience helps illustrate to readers the far reach of U.S. sanctions laws on Iran, and the need to continue emphasizing compliance.

Posted in Uncategorized

Trump Sanctions Iran

This heading is perhaps a bit more exciting than it should be, but maybe that’s necessary given the tone of the White House this week towards Iran, following that country’s recent missile tests.  Two days after US National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. (Ret) Michael Flynn announced that the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice,” the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made a handful of designations of Iranian and other entities to its Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.

Today’s addition is relatively lengthy, with entities ranging from individuals in Iran to companies in the Persian Gulf and China.  They were designated under Executive Orders dating to the Bush Administration.  While this may sound exceptionally aggressive, it is relatively insignificant by many measures if viewed from a legal standpoint.  The Obama administration frequently made these types of designations.

The true impact of these designations is that they can potentially place a non-legal damper on Iran’s trade with the world.  While the SDN list is an “American” list – there are secondary sanctions, meaning that third country entities dealing with these entities could face some types of repercussions in their affairs in the United States.  Beyond that, all the designated entities are sure to be similarly blocked by other financial institutions and businesses around the world (for example, banks in Asia may also freeze their accounts or not do business with them).  This can naturally impact Iran’s access to missile technologies and related services.

More generally, the more negative press Iran receives and the more Iranian or Iran-related entities are designated on the SDN list.  It will raise the cost of due diligence, increase the number of potential flags. In the greater scheme of things, today’s designations may not be exceptionally significant and certainly more innocuous than any type of military response. It remains to be seen if any fundamental regulatory changes or new Executive Orders could be issued, both of which could have significantly more severe impact.

Posted in Uncategorized

Trump Ushers in Sweeping Immigration Changes – Updated

I normally don’t post anything on this blog outside of sanctions news and analyses.  However, due to the heightened concern and alarm surrounding President Donald Trump’s statements and Executive Order on Friday, I decided to provide a simple analysis that could useful to the many individuals and families that could be impacted.  Given that we are in the first hours of this Executive Order going into effect and the vagueness of its language, there is a possibility I may have to clarify certain points in this blog post later.

President Trump yesterday issued an Executive Order mandating sweeping changes to U.S. immigration policy.  This order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” seeks to, among other things, protect U.S. citizens from “foreign nationals who intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States… and to prevent the admission of foreign nationals who intend to exploit United States immigration laws for malevolent purposes.” While the U.S. media has largely focused on the impact of the Executive Order on the nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries, the changes called for in the Order, as seen below, are dramatic and impact individuals far beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world.

What is included in the new Executive Order?

  1. “Extreme Vetting.” Trump is acting on a campaign process of implementing “extreme vetting” of visitors and immigrants seeking to enter the United States, calling for the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security, and Director of National Intelligence to determine the scope of information required to admit individuals into this country, and to grant admissions and other benefits under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).  These are aimed in part at ensuring that the would-be immigrant or visitor is not a threat to U.S. national security.Beyond the immediate short term, the Executive Order calls for more robust screening for all visa applicants others seeking immigration benefits.  The Executive Order calls for combating the entry of both those seeking to enter the United States with the intent to cause harm and those who are at risk of causing harm.  The administration seeks to achieve this by creating and imposing a strict review standard for such applicants, including vetting parameters to screen them, including evaluating whether these persons are likely to be a “positively contributing member of society.”
  1. The so-called “Muslim Ban.” An immediately effective 90-day ban on issuing visas to aliens from seven countries (with narrow exceptions), specifically Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen entering the United States.
  1. Review of Documentary Review Standards for Admission.  The Executive Order requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to review the documentary standards for aliens and determine what documents can be provided from the alien’s country of nationality for his or her case to be adjudicated for entry into the United States.  The Secretary must then provide a report within 30 days of those countries not providing what it deems to be adequate information, which will result in the Secretary of State requesting foreign governments to provide what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) considers adequate information. If the foreign government does not comply within 60 days of that request, that country’s nationals will also be barred entry to the United States, with limited exception.  Beyond this standard, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security can make additional recommendations for more countries they deem to be deserving of similar treatment.
  1. Restrictions on Refugee Entry. There will be broad changes to the intake of refugees into the United States. Specifically:
  • 120-day suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). This is to allow reevaluation of the current USRAP system of granting entry to refugees, supposedly to prevent security threats from entering the United States. Refugees who are already in the process, however, can be admitted once the revised procedures are implemented.
  • Revision of Prioritization once USRAP resumes. Once the policy’s suspension ends, the government intends to prioritize refugee claims for religious-based persecution by individuals who are members of a minority religion in their own country.
  • A cap of 50,000 refugee admissions in the United States for Fiscal Year 2017.
  • Indefinite Bar on Admission of Syrian Refugees. This prohibition will be in effect until the Mr. Trump has determined that USRAP reforms are sufficient to ensure that the admission of Syrians as refugees is aligned with U.S. national interests.
  1. Suspension of the Visa Interview Waiver Program. This means visas will be required for renewals, irrespective of the visa holder’s country of nationality. It also calls for the expansion of staffing at foreign embassies and consulates to “ensure that non-immigrant visa-interview wait times are not unduly affected.”
  1. Review and Reevaluation of Visa Reciprocity Policies. The Secretary of State is to review non-immigrant reciprocity arrangements to ensure that they are parallel with U.S. policies and to align policies vis-à-vis nationals of the respective other country accordingly.

Some Likely Questions:

  • Does the ban cover U.S. Permanent Residents (Green Card Holders)?  

Most probably. The media has already reported at least some Permanent Residents arriving at U.S. ports of entry immediately after the signing of the Executive Order being held and perhaps sent back to their points of origin.  As of Saturday morning, the Acting Spokesman of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has confirmed that the ban includes U.S. Permanent Residents from the seven designated countries.

  • Does the ban apply to nationals of all Muslim-majority countries?

No. Based on the language in the Executive Order, only seven countries (Iran, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen) fall under the visa ban, although more countries, Muslim-majority or not, can later be added to the list of countries whose nationals will be denied visas and entry.

  • Are there exceptions to the “Muslim Ban” and other “blacklisted” states?

Yes.  Certain types of visa holders, including diplomats and certain international civil servants are excluded from these bans. Additionally, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security have discretion to issue visas and other immigration benefits to such nationals on a case-by-case basis if they deem it to be in the national interest. This, however, is vague and not defined.

  • Are there Exceptions to Refugee restrictions?

Yes. There is some discretion for exceptions on a case-by-case basis, under certain narrow circumstances

  • Is this Executive Order Being Legally Challenged?

Yes. The New York Times has reported that there is already a lawsuit filed on behalf of two Iraqi nationals held at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, and there has been a motion for class certification for all refugees and others detained at U.S. ports. A copy of the complaint with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).


Friday’s Executive Order is very broad in scope and can cause potentially dramatic changes to U.S. immigration policy. Notably, however, it is also vague and this vagueness can wreak much confusion which can permeate to airport and airline personnel in foreign countries as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at U.S. ports of entry.  It is natural to expect that some clarification will be forthcoming, and there could be constitutional challenges in the courts that could potentially enjoin at least parts of this Executive Order. Until there is such clarity, I advise all persons to err on the side of caution and not guess or self-interpret.  Please consult with an immigration expert before making any travel or visitation plans.


Posted in Uncategorized

Sudan Sanctions [Almost] Repealed

OFAC announced on Friday that the prohibitions in the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations, 31 CFR Part 538 (the “SSR”) will be effectively narrowed (not repealed!) via a Final Rule issued Tuesday, January 17 in the Federal Register.  This is in response to certain behavior by the Sudanese government viewed favorable and cooperative by the outgoing Obama administration.

By adding a new section, § 560.538, OFAC effectively unblocked Government of Sudan property and issued a general license allowing most transactions with Sudan previously prohibited by the SSR and Executive Orders 13067 (November 5, 1997) and 13412 (October 6, 2006).   These include previous bars on the importation and exportation of goods and services to and from Sudan.

What is interesting is that the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (“TSRA”) which governs agricultural, medical device/supply and medicinal exports to Sudan is still in place.

Furthermore, note that this is a general license, not a repeal, and as such all other OFAC regulations generally apply, including bars on dealing with blocked individuals, as well as document retention requirements, etc. Furthermore, the US Export Administration Regulations (the “EAR”) governing dual-use items is still in place as well.  This means that items having dual use that are subject to the EAR will still require licenses in many instances if the end-use of the technology is in Sudan.

These are key points as oftentimes many confuse general license topics with exceptions. These are not exceptions and therefore, one must still exercise proper care to ensure compliance with certain requirements that continue to govern dealings with that country.

Posted in Uncategorized
Akrivis Law Group, PLLC
Washington, DC

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 107 other followers

  • RT @BISgov: Rebreather equipment could enable malign actors to gain unauthorized and undetected access to sensitive maritime areas. Export… 2 days ago

This website aims to provide notes and commentary on international legal, business, and political developments in economic and other sanctions. It is intended solely for information and entertainment purposes and should in no way be construed as legal advice. Laws, regulations, and policies change from time to time so some information on older posts can very easily be dated. If you have any questions or are unclear on any of the subject matters addressed or discussed on this site, please consult a licensed legal professional. Views presented in the comments and outside links do not necessarily reflect those of the website author. All external links on this website to articles and documents are external and provided for informational purposes only. They have no relation to the author of this website unless specified otherwise.

This website is independent of Akrivis Law Group, PLLC and any statements of opinion posted on this website are therefore not to be considered positions of Akrivis Law Group, PLLC.

Quotations and linkages do not imply any type of endorsement.

Copyright 2021 Farhad R. Alavi.

All rights reserved.

US Sanctions Law Blog