The recent decision by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) to issue a finding of violation, but no fine, against B Whale, a member of the Taiwanese TMT Shipping Group represents a new high (or low, depending on your point of view) for OFAC’s general belief that it has jurisdiction over anyone anywhere in the world. At issue was the transfer of Iranian oil from an Iranian vessel in international waters to a Monrovian-registered Liberian-flag ship owned by a Taiwanese company without any branches or business operations in the United States.
OFAC claimed that this was an illegal importation of Iranian goods into the United States in violation of section 560.201 of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”). Say what? According to OFAC, the foreign flagged ship in international waters became a part of the United States once TMT filed a bankruptcy petition in the United States, thereby placing all its assets under the control of the bankruptcy court. Because, you see, the ITSR defines the United States in section 560.307 of the ITSR as “the United States, its territories and possessions, and all areas under the jurisdiction or authority thereof.” I imagine that TMT, and probably the government of Taiwan, will be somewhat surprised to learn that real property owned by TMT in Taipei is now a part of the United States. By this logic, a bankrupt’s trucks in foreign countries would become “areas” under the jurisdiction of the United States. Certainly these absurd results demonstrate that “area” in section 560.307 means geographic areas and not simply any physical space somewhere in the world.
I am unable to find any precedent from OFAC itself or any other court or agency for such an expansive definition of the United States Interestingly, Congress, when defining the scope of federal criminal law, stops far short of OFAC’s definition. The definition of “United States” in the federal criminal code is defined as “all places and waters, continental or insular, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, except the Canal Zone.” See 18 U.S.C. § 5. To cover ships, which aren’t “places and waters, continental and insular” the federal criminal code defines the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction” of the United States which covers ships on the high seas owned by at least one U.S. citizen or a foreign vessel with a scheduled departure or arrival in the United States “to the extent permitted by international law.” See 18 U.S.C. § 7. Ships owned by bankrupts aren’t either the United States or part of the special maritime jurisdiction as far as Congress was concerned. It’s hard to imagine that OFAC has the statutory authority to expand the scope of its jurisdiction in this fashion by calling every asset of a bankrupt anywhere on the face of the planet a part of “the United States.”
Not only does OFAC stretch the concept of “United States” beyond the breaking point, but also it does the same thing to the definition of “United States person.” Whale B was found to have violated section 560.211 when it engaged in a transaction with a blocked Iranian vessel. The violation occurred because OFAC decided that Whale B was a “United States person.” That term is defined in section 560.314 to cover a “person in the United States.” And Whale B, a company organized under the laws of Taiwan and without any physical presence in the United States, was “in the United States” because it filed a bankruptcy case in the United States. It’s difficult to imagine where a principled limit could be drawn if filing a lawsuit in the United States means that a company is “in the United States.” Is a company with a U.S copyright registration now “in the United States” and fully subject to U.S. sanctions? What if it has a dot com domain name issued by a U.S. registrar? Or it uses an email service that has servers in the United States? Or it has a pending sales order it made with a U.S. company over the Internet?
And here’s one last comment on the B Whale shipwreck. OFAC cites this as an aggravating factor: B Whale “took steps to conceal a ship-to-ship transfer of Iranian oil with an Iranian vessel on the SDN List … by … switching off the vessel’s automatic identification system during the time period corresponding with the ship-to-ship transfer.” Apparently OFAC forgot that, because of the TMT bankruptcy, B Whale was subject to seizure and detention by foreign creditors in jurisdictions not interested in observing the automatic stay arising from the U.S. bankruptcy. In such a situation, the more likely reason for turning off the AIS was the common practice of doing so to hide from foreign creditors, not from OFAC.