The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that Total, S.A., the French oil and gas company, agreed to pay $245.2 million to resolve charges that it paid bribes to an Iranian government official by way of purported consulting agreements from 1995 to 2004 in order to secure, among other things, oil and gas rights in Iran. The Justice Department described the case against Total as “the first coordinated action by French and U.S. law enforcement in a major bribery case.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also reached a settlement with Total pursuant to which Total agreed to pay $153 million to resolve related FCPA allegations.
There is a lot to be said about Total’s settlement. At almost $400 million combined, Total’s payments are in the pantheon of largest payments ever for FCPA matters, along with Siemens, KBR and BAE. Another interesting component to the Total case, however, is its potential effectiveness for economic sanctions enforcement vis-à-vis Iran.
In the past few weeks, Congress and the White House have been busy expanding U.S. economic sanctions against foreign persons for their dealings with Iran. We reported recently on the current House bill that would expand sanctions against foreign banks engaging in certain transactions with Iranian banks. The President last week issued an executive order expanding secondary sanctions against, for example, foreign banks’ rial-based transactions as well as certain dealings by anyone with most persons on the SDN List pursuant to sanctions against Iran.
These secondary sanctions, however, provide U.S. enforcement authorities with a great deal of discretion on if and when to designate foreign persons to the SDN List. Pushing the bounds of secondary sanctions beyond those against foreign persons with substantial ties to the Iranian government, of course, runs the risk of offending other countries who continue to permit their companies to do business with Iran.
Given these limitations, the FCPA would appear to be an effective tool the United States can use in applying pressure against foreign persons doing business with Iran. Although the FCPA carries its own extraterritorial criticisms, corruption is a global issue that many countries have committed itself to address whether by national law or membership to groups like the OECD.
While the United States differs with other countries on precisely what sanctions policies to adopt against Iran, Sudan, Syria or North Korea for current conflict or human rights concerns in those countries, there would seem to be a common allegiance to combat corruption there. It just so happens all four countries are among the most corrupt countries in the world as annually ranked by Transparency International. The Total case at least sends the message to foreign companies that business as usual in Iran can result in significant FCPA penalties and possible cooperation from authorities in the companies’ home countries in bringing them about.