Archive for June, 2009



MTN-Bharti Deal Scares Some OFAC-Wary Bankers

Posted by at 8:38 pm on June 30, 2009
Category: Economic SanctionsOFAC

MTNA report on Reuters today raised some interesting issues with respect to the MTN-Bharti deal. The merger, which would create the world’s third largest wireless telephone company, is creating some heartburn for U.S. bankers who’d like to get a piece of this action. The reason for the heartburn: South African wireless operator MTN derives 13 percent of its revenue from Iran, Syria and Sudan.

As usual, OFAC isn’t saying anything about the propriety of U.S. banks financing or advising this deal, which is, of course, consistent with OFAC’s standard policy of regulation through ambiguity, a policy that utilizes fear of substantial penalties to keep U.S. firms from engaging in activities that are arguably permissible under the rules

A U.S. Treasury official declined to comment on the MTN-Bharti advisory work by U.S. banks, but said there was some room within OFAC rules for U.S. companies to deal cautiously with situations involving deals with foreign firms that have subsidiaries in the sanctioned areas — as long as they are not facilitating transactions with the sanctioned countries.

“U.S. persons are not necessarily prohibited from dealing with third-country firms that do business in sanctioned countries, although they should approach such dealings carefully,” said the official, who was not authorised to speak publicly about OFAC’s enforcement of sanctions.

Ah yes, the facilitation bogey-man rears his ugly head. That should scare not just bankers but lawyers, CPAs, PR firms and anyone else even tangentially involved with the deal, including the limo drivers that take the bankers and lawyers to work and the chefs that cater their working lunches.

A DC lawyer tries to pooh-pooh the concerns:

[A lawyer] who often deals with OFAC compliance, said the sanctions are not intended to kill off opportunities for U.S. banks to do work on foreign mergers that involve some business in foreign countries.

“If you had a rule that no U.S. investment bank could advise a merger between non-U.S. companies that is one scintilla related to a sanctioned target country, there would be no cross-border advisory business done at all by U.S. banks. It would all move to London,” he said.

I think that’s what might be called hyperbole. Some business might go to London, but all? I don’t think so. And even if it did, I’m not so sure that would sway OFAC.

[The lawyer] says he believes there could be a strong risk of running foul of OFAC restrictions if revenue from sanctioned countries is 25 percent or more — a level that some lawyers use as a rule of thumb to determine a safe level of business in sanctioned countries for the foreign firms.

Twenty-five percent is a nice number as far as numbers go. Certainly it’s much easier to remember than, say, thirty-two percent. But even if that number is used by some as a “rule of thumb,” it is, politely put, a completely made-up number.

This would be a great area for OFAC to clarify, but I’m not holdng my breath.

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Sanctions Sought Against Companies Providing Telcom Equipment to Iran

Posted by at 8:34 pm on June 25, 2009
Category: Iran Sanctions

Twitter Keeps Iran AfloatEven though Iran’s mobile phone infrastructure was crucial to the ability of Iranians to send to the outside world video, still images and first-hand reports of the events in Iran, Senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham think it’s a good idea to impose sanctions on two European companies that provided equipment used by Iran’s mobile phone infrastructure. The rush to pitchforks and torches was occasioned by a Wall Street Journal report earlier this week that revealed that Nokia Siemens Networks, a joint-venture of the German and Finnish telecom equipment giants, provided equipment that the Iranian government was using to monitor mobile telephone and Internet communications. A spokesman for the joint venture indicated that the technology provided to Iran was intended for lawful intercepts, a capability provided by the joint-venture and other companies to telcom providers around the world, including the United States. Lawful interception capacity is built into telcom networks to enable interception of communications relating to child pornography, drug trafficking, terrorism and other criminal activities.

Schumer and Graham are proposing to introduce legislation tomorrow that would require U.S. government contractors that export “sensitive technologies” such as the intercept technology to Iran to terminate relationships with Iran before applying for new contracts or renewing existing contracts. The proposed legislation allows the President to waive the restrictions as long as the reasons for the waiver are reported to Congress. If, as Nokia Siemens Networks claims, the intercept capability is inherent in all networking equipment, the Graham-Schumer proposal could have the counterproductive effect of slowing the growth of Iran’s mobile telephone system. At this point, that would seem to benefit the currently embattled Iranian regime to the detriment of ordinary Iranians as well as dissidents in Iran seeking to communicate with the outside world.

Ironically, Schumer and Graham appear not to realize that they might do more for Iranian dissidents and the ordinary Iranian in the street by limiting sanctions rather than increasing them. As we noted in an earlier post, current sanctions, as interpreted by OFAC, arguably prohibit the provision of social networking and similar services, such as Twitter and Facebook, to Iranians, even though these services have been essential to allowing the flow of information from Iran to the rest of the world. More good could be done by legislation expanding and clarifying the information and telecommunications exception to make provision of Twitter, messaging-services, Facebook, YouTube and the like to private citizens in Iran clearly and unambiguously legal.

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“Hear your fate, O dwellers in Flint of the wide spaces”

Posted by at 10:56 pm on June 23, 2009
Category: BIS

Delphi HQMichigan-based Delphi Corporation, maker of auto parts and systems, agreed to a $50,000 suspended fine in connection of three exports of triethanolamine to the PRC and to South Africa. The fine will be suspended for a year provided that Delphi commits no further violations and will be waived thereafter. The fine was the result of a voluntary disclosure by Delphi. The charging documents provide no information as to the quantity or value of the exported triethanolamine, so it’s difficult to put the fine in context.

Triethanolamine is a chemical with diverse uses. It is used as an emulsification agent in shampoos, soaps, shaving cream and various cosmetics. It’s also used in metal cleaning and rust removal, and in lubricating and metalworking fluids. (Think of that the next time you wash you hair or use shaving cream!) The automobile industry uses triethanolamine in machining and grinding fluids. It’s also a mustard gas precursor. Because of the ubiquity of triethanolamine, it’s not surprising that it has been the subject of a number of enforcement actions. We’ve reported on enforcement actions relating to triethanolamine exports previously here and here.

It’s not clear why Delphi was exporting triethanolamine, other than to be used by one of its subsidiaries or OEM manufacturers abroad. Delphi does have several locations in China, although it’s not hard to find sellers of triethanolamine in China, such as this one.

Once again, BIS’s charging documents demonstrate that the agency lacks some familiarity with the item that it is regulating, as was the case, recently, with 6-2-4-2 titanium. Although the charging letter correctly spells the name of the exported item, both the Order and the Settlement Agreement state that Delphi exported “triethanolmine,” which, frankly, should have just looked wrong to anyone who knows anything about chemistry and knows why triethanolamine might be regulated as a dual-use item. Again, I’m not simply complaining about a random typo in the charging documents. Certainly, one can find typos here particularly given our, er, leisurely production schedule. But it’s not too much to ask that the charging documents correctly spell the name of the exported item.

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Chips Ahoy!

Posted by at 8:24 pm on June 18, 2009
Category: Iran Sanctions

AMD Opteron ChipMore U.S. computer chips have been sighted in Iran, this time some AMD Opteron Dual Core microprocessors that the Aerospace Research Institute of Iran (“ARI”) touts it has incorporated into what passes for a supercomputer in Iran. The ARI is affiliated with the Iranian government and conducts research on missile technology.

A spokesman for AMD states that he’s “shocked, shocked” to discover that there are AMD chips in Iran. Actually he said that the company complies with all export laws and he has no idea how the company’s chips wound up in Iran, a statement that is likely true in the sense that AMD does not know which of its distributors broke its distribution agreement and sold AMD product to Iran. But generally speaking, AMD, like everyone else, knows how the chips wound up in Iran. The unmentioned two-ton elephant sitting in the corner of the parlor is — are you ready? — named Dubai.

Back in December 2007, this blog reported that Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran had announced that it had used 218 AMD microprocessors to build what it called a “supercomputer” with a theoretical peak performance of 860 gigaflops. (Real supercomputers measure peak performance in hundreds of teraflops, so this was frankly a rather anemic supercomputer.) AMD issued pretty much the same press release at the time, indicating that it complied with U.S. export laws and had no idea how its chips wound up in Iran.

A little bit of investigation by this blog and we found a picture of Amirkabir assembling the computer complete with pictures of boxes for the AMD chips bearing the logo of Thacker, a company based in — surprise, surprise! — Dubai. Thacker also did its best imitation of Captain Renault and purported to be shocked that its products had wound up just across the Strait of Hormuz in Iran.

This time AMD has indicated that it is going to inform the Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) that it has learned that ARI’s website claimed that it had used AMD chips to build a computer. That is, of course, the right thing for the company to do, but I wonder what such a disclosure is called. It’s not what BIS would normally call a “Voluntary Self Disclosure.” Perhaps we should call it a “Voluntary Somebody Else Disclosure”?

[Hat tip to Patrick Thibodeau at Computer World for breaking this story.]

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Will The Revolution Be Twitterized?

Posted by at 11:08 am on June 17, 2009
Category: Iran Sanctions

Twitter Keeps Iran AfloatAccording to this report in the Wall Street Journal, the State Department asked Twitter to delay again a previously scheduled downtime on the service because of unfolding events in Iran. Twitter itself had delayed the first scheduled downtime. Twitter, however, ignored State’s request to delay the downtime again, cryptically noting in its blog that “the State Department does not have access to our decision making process.”

But where is the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) in all of this? The current sanctions seem to prohibit California-based Twitter from providing its services to people in Tehran or anywhere else in Iran. The Twitter service sets up for each user a micro-blogging page that contains each of his or her “tweets.” This goes far beyond the narrow interpretation OFAC has of both the telecommunications exception and the information exception in its Iranian Transactions Regulations. Certainly if it is OFAC’s position that providing ISP services in Iran must be licensed, providing micro-blogging hosting services would require a license as well.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating that OFAC rush in and shut down Twitter in Iran. But this instance shows the absurdity of applying comprehensive, rather than targeted sanctions, against Iran as well as the absurdity of OFAC’s narrow interpretations of the telecommunications and information exceptions. OFAC should define telecommunications services to cover all or most Internet-based services (including instant messaging, blog hosting, VOIP telephony). Similarly, the information exception should be broadened to include provision of any services by which information can be transmitted to or from Iran. Otherwise, OFAC’s regulations will have the unintended effect of supporting the Ahmadinejad regime’s goal of suppressing dissent in Iran.

One wonders whether OFAC and the State Department had any discussions about Twitter in Iran. And to be completely fair to OFAC, I’ve spoken informally with some people at the agency that are fully aware of, and concerned that, broad application of OFAC’s sanctions against private citizens in Iran might not be the best idea if it results in squelching the expression of dissenting views within the country.

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