Aug

2

Touch a U.S. Dollar Anywhere, Go Directly to U.S. Jail


Posted by at 11:58 pm on August 2, 2017
Category: Iran SanctionsOFAC

DSME Drillship via http://cse-transtel.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/DSME-Ultra-Deep-Water-Drillship-Project.jpg [Fair Use]Two companies in Singapore, CSE Global and CSE Transtel, agreed to pay the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) $12,027,066 to settle charges that they violated the Iran Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (“ITSR”). The charges arose from CSE Transtel supplying telecommunications goods and services to energy projects in Iran. OFAC did not allege that these goods and services originated in the United States. Rather, OFAC alleged that because the vendors were paid in U.S. Dollars that CSE had caused the export of financial services from U.S. Banks to Iran in violation of section 560.204 of the ITSR.

Now we’ve been through this U.S. dollar business with OFAC before. In the typical case, OFAC’s claim of jurisdiction over the foreign company is based on the fact that the foreign company’s bank and the foreign company’s customer’s bank would have used correspondent accounts denominated in dollars and held in U.S banks to effectuate the transaction. Of course, whether the transfer of dollars between U.S. banks in connection with a foreign company’s sale of goods to Iran is the export of a financial service to Iran is not entirely clear. But at least in this scenario you can see a direct flow of dollars related to a specific Iranian transaction.

But the Singapore situation is different because Singapore is authorized to engage in offshore dollar clearing transactions. And, as the OFAC release admits, the transactions in question were effectuated through U.S. Dollar accounts held in Singapore banks. The way that U.S. Dollar transactions are cleared in Singapore is described here. Suffice it to say, there are cases where U.S. Dollar transactions can be cleared in Singapore under this system without a U.S. bank ever being involved. If, for example, CSE and its vendor had U.S Dollar accounts at the same bank, or were the only dollar transactions between two Singapore banks on a clearing day, the Singapore clearing house would clear the transactions without the need for either bank to make up a dollar deficit as part of the clearing process.

But in the other possible (and more likely) situations where the dollars clear in Singapore but dollar transfers are needed to make up differences between banks, it still can’t be said that the dollar transfers to settle the dollar position of the Singapore bank is the export of a financial service to Iran. Say a bank in Singapore pays $10,000 for a customer’s Iran transaction but during the day pays out $200,000 and receives $100,000 where none of these other dollar transactions have anything to do with Iran. It will need to transfer $100,000 to the Singapore clearing house, which will be effectuated through a U.S. Dollar correspondent account in the United States. In that case the bank in the United States has not transferred any financial service to Iran because the payment relates to an aggregate of transactions valued at $300,000, almost all of which have nothing to do with Iran.

The only scenario in the Singapore clearing situation where the U.S. bank would transfer a financial service to Iran would be where the Iran payment by the Singapore bank is the only U.S. dollar transaction by the Singapore bank during the clearing day. In that case, the transaction looks like a traditional one where the dollar payment is cleared through the U.S. bank. But there is no reason to believe that any or all of the CSE Iran transaction were the only dollar transactions during that clearing day. But that doesn’t stop OFAC from inaccurately claiming that every dollar transaction conducted by CSE through its Singapore accounts caused a transfer of financial services from the United States to Iran.

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Jul

28

Sausage Making Looks Good Compared To This Law


Posted by at 3:02 pm on July 28, 2017
Category: OFACRussia Sanctions

Carsten's Sausage Factory via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Packing_Carsten%27s_weiner_sausages_on_an_assembly_line,_Tacoma,_Washington_(4670205658).jpg [Public Domain]The Russia Sanctions Review Act of 2017, which may or may not get vetoed by the White House, has now passed both the House and the Senate as sections 215  and 216 of the euphoniously named Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act ( or the “CATS Act”)(seriously?). Section 216 attempts to circumscribe the authority of the White House to alter sanctions on Russia without a sign-off by Congress.  I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that the bill is a confusing mess that likely will not accomplish its purpose, unless its purpose is simply to tell voters that Congress means business, very serious business.

The legislation requires the President to file a report with Congress before he acts “to terminate” Russia sanctions, acts “to waive the application” of the sanctions against specific persons or takes “a licensing action that significantly alters United States’ foreign policy with regard to the Russian Federation.”  Depending on whether this action is intended to significantly alter U.S  foreign policy with respect to Russia, the legislation sets forth a 30- or 60-day review period by Congress — 30 days if no; 60 days if yes.   The proposed action may not take effect within the review period unless specifically authorized by a joint resolution of both house of Congress.

Alert readers (or basically anyone other than members of Congress) will immediately see the hole in this scheme — a hole big enough to fire a Nork  No-Dong missile through.  That hole is the general license, a concept which dates back at least to the general license for Cuba travel issued by the Carter administration in 1977 (i.e. seven years before Mark Zuckerberg was even born).  A “general license” with respect to Russia sanctions is definitely not a “termination” of them.   And whether a particular general license “significantly alters United States’ foreign policy” with regard to Russia, well that’s a judgment call on which reasonable people could always disagree and on which no court will ever venture an opinion.

The Federal Register notice granting the broad general license to engage in activities otherwise prohibited by Russia sanctions will simply note that in the considered opinion of OFAC the general license, which OFAC reserves the right to withdraw at any time, does not significantly alter U.S. foreign policy towards Russia.   And if Congress disagrees with that administrative determination, what is it going to do?  Arrest OFAC? Scream and holler on C-SPAN?  No, it will do what it always could have done before and without passing the CATS Act — pass a law reversing the general license.

Your tax dollars at work.

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Jul

21

ExxonMobil Fined Two Million Dollars for Two Milliliters of Ink.


Posted by at 7:11 am on July 21, 2017
Category: OFACRussia SanctionsSDN List

By Dyor, STRF.ru (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons [cropped]
ABOVE: Igor Sechint

Yesterday the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced that it was fining ExxonMobil $2 million in connection with contracts signed by ExxonMobil with Rosneft in violation of the Ukraine Related Sanctions Regulations. The basis for the fine was not dealing with Rosneft itself; rather, OFAC premised the fine on the fact that Igor Sechin, an individual designated under Executive Order 13661 and the Ukraine Sanctions, signed the contracts. Simultaneously with the OFAC announcement, ExxonMobil filed suit in federal court in Texas seeking to overturn the penalty.

The OFAC announcement is unusual in that rather than simply announcing the fine and going through its usual analysis of how it calculated the penalty, OFAC responds to arguments made by ExxonMobil that it did not violate the sanctions.  ExxonMobil argued that OFAC had designated Sechin in his private capacity and not in his capacity as an official of Rosneft. OFAC harrumphs, as if it were completely obvious, that there is no private/official distinction in designations. According to OFAC, it is completely clear that there will be a problem if the blocked officer signs any agreement with a U.S person. It supports this with a Burma FAQ that deals with a different situation, that was contained in a section dealing with the Burma regulations and that OFAC has removed from its website.

OFAC’s glib rejection of a public/private distinction is not founded in any analysis of the regulations at issue. In fact, as everyone has known for quite some time, the rules do not clearly address situations where an officer of a company is designated and blocked by OFAC but the company itself is not. The Ukraine regulations refer to Executive Order 13661 as defining what activities are illegal. That relevant part of the order is Section 4 which prohibits

the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order

It also prohibits the “receipt … of funds, goods, or services” from any such blocked person.

So how does Sechin’s signature of the Rosneft deals step over a line? Certainly ExxonMobil wasn’t providing any funds, goods or services for his benefit. The contracts were for the benefit of Rosneft. Nor did ExxonMobil receive any “funds, goods, or services” from Sechin in the contract. Unless perhaps OFAC thinks that Sechin provided a service to ExxonMobil when he whipped out his pen and spent three seconds spreading ink over the signature line.

If that is the illegal service that was being provided, and it seems that it is because OFAC is drawing a line at the signature line, it’s not very defensible. Let’s say that Sechin hid in a closet and told another company official to sign. That’s a service too. In fact, there is no way to imagine a scenario where a top official of a company does not ultimately approve a major contract, which is also a service, meaning that OFAC’s effort to maintain a distinction between sanctioning Rosneft and sanctioning its officers falls completely apart.

The FAQ relied on by OFAC does not help its position either. Because OFAC has disappeared this crucial guidance (in fact the only guidance from OFAC anywhere on the signature issue) from its website, I’ve retrieved it from the Wayback Machine:

285. If a Burmese Government minister is an SDN, how does that impact the ministry he leads?

A government ministry is not blocked solely because the minister heading it is an SDN. U.S. persons should, however, be cautious in dealings with the ministry to ensure that they are not, for example, entering into any contracts that are signed by the SDN. [03-18-13]

Significantly, guidance on the minister of a government ministry is not necessarily relevant to a situation involving an official of a private company. Additionally, it is hard to justify punishing a company for violating the Ukraine sanctions because it did not read a web document about another set of sanctions.  Not to mention that this guidance no longer exists at all.

It’s easy to see what ExxonMobil sued. I’ll be watching the lawsuit closely. Pass the popcorn.

UPDATE:  FAQs 398 and 400 released after the Rosneft contracts that caution against entering into contract signed by SDNs.  Both of these concern OFAC’s 50-percent guidance and not the Ukraine sanctions.  Neither explains how an SDN signing a contract in his or her official capacity actually violates a rule that OFAC has promulgated and published in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations.

 

Photo Credit: By Dyor, STRF.ru (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons [cropped]. Copyright 2009 Dyor, STRF.ru

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Jul

19

Why One of the Swapped Prisoners Did Not Return to Iran.


Posted by at 9:55 pm on July 19, 2017
Category: Criminal PenaltiesDDTCITAR

Nima Golestaneh Mug Shot [Fair Use]
ABOVE: Nima Golestaneh

In January 2016 the United States and Iran engaged in a prisoner swap. None of the freed prisoners returned to Iran, instead they all chose to remain in the United States, including Nima Golestaneh, the only Iranian national in the group. (The remainder were dual U.S.-Iranian citizens). Golestaneh, who had been nabbed in, and extradited from, Turkey, had been convicted of a scheme to hack into Arrow Tech in Vermont and send its ITAR-controlled software back to Iran.

Now we have a pretty good idea why he may have been selected for a pardon and why he decided that going back to Iran might not have been such a good idea. Yesterday, two Iranians, Mohammed Ajily and Mohammed Rezakhah were added by OFAC to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (the “SDN List”) and the Department of Justice announced that an indictment against the two had been unsealed. The indictment reveals that Ajily and Rezakhah were Golestaneh’s co-conspirators in the hacking scheme, and it seems certain that Golestaneh made a deal and dropped the dime on Ajily and Rezakhah.

Both Ajily and Rezakhah are currently in Iran and probably have no current plans to visit Disneyland or anywhere else outside Iran. It’s also safe to assume that Golestaneh would not be welcomed with open arms should he turn up in Iran. In fact, that would be an instance of going from the frying pan (a U.S. jail) into the fire (an Iranian one).

The indictment details Golestaneh’s role in the hacking conspiracy. Apparently his job was to procure servers in Canada and the Netherlands. These enabled Rezakhah to download the Arrow Tech software without using an IP address from Iran, which likely would have been blocked by Arrow Tech. The software would not run without a hardware dongle from Arrow Tech, and Arrow Tech informed foreign customers that they would need an export license to obtain the dongle. That dongle not doubt contained the digital key needed to decrypt the program and allow it to run. It looks like Rezakhah hacked into Arrow Tech’s servers to obtain the digital key needed to decrypt the program.

Of course, it’s not just Rezakhah who has a problem in this scenario. If in fact, if Arrow Tech allowed foreign download of ITAR-controlled encrypted software without a license, that was arguably problematic. DDTC has taken the position that items are exported even if encrypted. And, if there is support for that position by DDTC, it can be found in this case, which demonstrates that there is always some possibility that the encryption will be broken. (It now appears that Arrow Tech distributes the software only by optical media and not by download). One has to wonder if the failure of DDTC to adopt rules like those adopted by BIS which exempt encrypted items from the definition of export is, at least in part, the result of what happened in this case.

One other thing bears noting here, namely, the most amusing irrelevant statement ever put in a criminal indictment. For some reason, the indictment notes that Ajily, Rezakhah’s co-conspirator “received certificates of appreciation for his work from several of the Iranian government and military entities.”   Seriously, he got certificates he could frame and hang on his office wall.  Awesome.  That was a clear violation of the law that forbids receiving certificates of appreciation from Iran.  I have to imagine that this factoid comes from Golestaneh who, when he was singing to the DOJ, said something on the order of  “Ajily got certificates and all I got was this lousy jumpsuit.”

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Jul

13

You Had Just One Job: BIS Spokesman Dodges Qatar Boycott Question


Posted by at 8:34 am on July 13, 2017
Category: Anti-BoycottBIS

Port of Fujairah by Port of Fujairah via http://fujairahport.ae/wp-content/gallery/gallery/picture-521.jpg [Fair Use]
ABOVE:Port of Fujairah

Eugene Cotilli is the Media/Congressional Liason at the Department of Commerce and is the listed contact for inquiries relating to the Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”). Josh Lederman of the Associated Press contacted him to ask him whether the boycott against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the U.A.E. is an unsanctioned foreign boycott for purposes of the BIS anti-boycott rules that prohibit U.S. companies from complying with unsanctioned foreign boycotts. This blog has previously discussed this issue in this post.

This is a perfectly legitimate question. It is an important question because if the rules do apply and a U.S. company accepts a purchase order with an impermissible boycott clause, it is subject to a fine of $284,582 or twice the value of the transaction, whichever is greater. If the order with the impermissible clause is for $1 million worth of goods, the company accepting that order is liable for a civil penalty of $2 million dollars.

So, given the serious consequences of such a violation, Mr. Cotilli certainly provided useful guidance on this simple question, right? Here is his response: no comment. Right, he declined to answer Lederer’s simple and legitimate question. He didn’t even say,  “I’ll find out and get back to you.”

Part of the purpose of this post is to shame bad government. But there’s another purpose as well. It’s to encourage you to download and save a copy of Josh Lederman’s article and put it in your files. Although the safe play with respect to the Qatar boycott is to treat it as an unsanctioned foreign boycott, as my previous post thought was the case, you might still get caught up in a violation because BIS’s antiboycott rules are ridiculously complex, profoundly unclear and preposterously confusing. You could, even with the best of intentions, run afoul of them because of some clause buried in a letter of credit. Cotilli’s refusal to answer a simple and direct question as to whether the Qatar boycott is covered by these rules may turn out to be your best defense.

You’re welcome.

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