US and EU sanctions related to Russia and Iran have a direct and targeted impact on the energy sector. The sanctions regimes against Russia and Iran differ substantially and seem to be moving in different directions. In this article, we explore the challenges facing US and EU energy companies seeking to operate in Russia and Iran.
Brief overview of energy related sanctions against Russia
Since March 2014, the US has imposed an increasingly strict set of sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian individuals and companies. These sanctions generally fall into four categories: a list of blocked persons and entities, identified as Specially Designated Nationals, or SDNs; much more limited restrictions for specified Russian banks, oil companies and technology companies, identified as a Sectoral Sanctions Identification List or SSI List; export controls; and a full commercial embargo of Crimea. These sanctions are imposed pursuant to several Executive Orders promulgated by President Obama and the Ukraine-Related Sanctions Regulations. US Persons—defined as US citizens and permanent residents, entities organized under US jurisdictions, and persons physically in the United States—must comply.
The US has designated as SDNs a number of key government and military officials (both Russian and from the former Ukrainian Government), individuals with close ties to the Russian Government, and Russian and Crimean entities. US Persons are generally prohibited from transacting with any of these blocked persons, and must freeze such blocked persons’ property in their possession, custody, or control. These SDNs are also banned from traveling to the US. In comparison with the SSI List, SDNs targeted inter alia leaders of the Russian oil companies.
According to SSI List and its related OFAC’s Directives, the following activities by a US Person or within the United States related to oil companies are prohibited, except to the extent provided by law or unless licensed or otherwise authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control: the provision, exportation, or re-exportation, directly or indirectly, of goods, services (except for financial services), or technology in support of exploration or production for deep-water, Arctic offshore, or shale projects that have the potential to produce oil in the Russian Federation, or in a maritime area claimed by the Russian Federation and extending from its territory, and that involve any person determined to be subject to this Directive, its property, or its interests in property. The prohibition on the exportation of services includes, for example, drilling services, geophysical services, geological services, logistical services, management services, modeling capabilities, and mapping technologies. The SSI List includes, among others, Russia’s largest energy companies.
The US and EU sanctions are largely aligned. Like the US, the EU has also adopted sanctions that block persons, restrict financing, limit certain exports, and broadly prohibit trade with Crimea. EU persons—EU citizens and permanent residents, entities organized in EU member states and persons physically in the European Union—must comply.
While there are differences between the US and EU sanctions, these are more of a degree than of a kind. For example, the EU and US do not block an identical set of individuals and entities, but the implications for those blocked persons are the same: a visa ban (for individuals) and a freezing of all assets. Notably for EU companies in the energy sector, EU sanctions prohibit the provision of loans or investment services to Crimean companies, ban exports of goods and technology and prohibit the provision of technical assistance, brokering, construction, or engineering services, in the energy sector and in the prospecting for, and exploration and production of oil, gas, and mineral resources, to any Crimean entity, or for use in Crimea. Contracts signed prior to 20 September 2014 are exempted.
Brief overview of energy related sanctions against Iran
On 14 July 2015, the “P5+1” working group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US) reached a landmark agreement with the Government of Iran to adopt the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA). Under the JCPOA, the P5+1 agreed to implement broad UN, US and EU sanctions relief in exchange for Iran’s ongoing compliance with a number of nuclear-related measures. This sanctions relief will occur in two phases: (1) when the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA) verifies Iran’s compliance with nuclear-related measures, which occurred on 16 January 2016; and (2) when the IAEA, together with the UN Security Council, confirms that Iran’s nuclear materials are being used for peaceful activities, or 18 October 2023, whichever is sooner.
Most of the US sanctions that are suspended—both in the first and second phases—are extraterritorial, i.e., they apply to non-US Persons who do business with Iran. US companies seeking to engage the Iranian market, therefore, need to be aware of the limits of US sanctions relief under the JCPOA, namely:
1. US Persons generally remain prohibited from doing business with Iran. The JCPOA will not lift the general commercial embargo which prohibits US Persons from doing business with Iran, except for certain sales of civilian commercial aircraft to Iran, imports of Iranian-origin carpets and foodstuffs.
2. US companies’ overseas subsidiaries will be licensed to transact with Iran under OFAC’s General License H. The JCPOA will license overseas subsidiaries of US entities for activities consistent with the agreement. However, the licensing methodology and the definition of “overseas subsidiaries” are not described and remain to be clarified.
3. Other US sanctions including those related to counter-terrorism or human rights-related sanctions asserting extraterritorial application will remain in place.
4. On 7 October 2016, OFAC issued updated guidance on several issues. The issues addressed include banking transactions with Iranian banks; dollar-denominated transactions; acceptable due diligence standards; and part-ownership of Iranian companies by entities who remain on the SDN list.
With regard to Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves, the first phase of relief will mean the US will no longer sanction non-US Persons who engage in transactions with Iran’s energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors, or port operations. Nor will the US any longer sanction non-US persons who invest in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors; purchase, sell, transport, or market oil, gas and petrochemicals from Iran; export, sell or provide refined petroleum products and petrochemical products to Iran; or otherwise transact with Iran’s energy sector including Naftiran Intertrade Company, National Iranian Oil Company and National Iranian Tanker Company, and associated services. Non-nuclear-related sanctions still remain in place on all companies and persons, regardless of nationality, who seek to do business with any Iranian people or entities which remain on the SDN List.
EU sanctions relief is far more expansive. Unlike the US, the EU will allow its companies to invest directly in Iran and transact with Iranian persons. EU member states have agreed to terminate or suspend all “economic and financial sanctions” against Iran. As a result of the first phase of sanctions relief under the JCPOA, EU persons are permitted to trade in Iranian crude oil and petroleum products, natural gas and petrochemical products, as well as related financing. Similarly, the sale, supply or transfer of equipment and technology, as well as the provision of technical assistance and training in this sector are permitted. In addition, EU Persons are free to grant financial loans or credit and to participate in joint ventures with any Iranian persons engaged in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors in Iran or elsewhere.
Implications for energy companies
While the US and EU have both imposed a number of sanctions on Russia that aim directly to constrain investment in Russia’s energy sector—and in particular its future oil development—there are a number of reasons why Russia’s energy sector may possibly continue to attract US and European investment.
To begin with, US and EU sanctions are (thus far) narrowly targeted. Unless specifically prohibited, Russia’s economy, including its energy sector, is fully open to investment. Second, the sanctions against Russia could be lifted, if the situation in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea develops in certain directions. Finally, US and EU companies are more familiar with Russia and Russian business practices in comparison to Iran, a country where numerous other compliance and other business risks are encountered.
During the first phase of sanctions relief under the JCPOA, which began on 16 January 2016, EU energy companies and the overseas subsidiaries (again yet to be defined) of US energy companies will now have the opportunity to engage Iran’s vastly underdeveloped energy sector. It is estimated that the country will need hundreds of billions of dollars of investment to restore its petroleum fields and then further develop them. EU and the overseas subsidiaries of US companies seeking to engage Iran should therefore be prepared to understand and implement an updated sanctions compliance program that ensures they do not inadvertently risk breach of the ongoing EU and US sanctions. These companies will need to also actively monitor Iran’s compliance as determined by the IAEA and the JCPOA Committee, as a breach may trigger a mandatory wind-down and withdrawal.
The same is not true with regard to the remaining US sanctions against Iran, for example, which would require approval by the US Congress. Moreover, critically, the JCPOA provides for UN, US and EU sanctions to “snapback.” This means that while many companies may now be allowed to invest in Iran, they will face the prospect of having to wind down their operations in the event that Iran is found to have breached the JCPOA.
“We note that other countries, including Canada, also continue to maintain sanctions against Iran that go beyond the limited sanctions imposed by the UN. To the extent there is any connection to such other countries in particular transactions, country-specific sanctions compliance advice should also be sought.”