Category Archives: Sanctions

US Compliance in the UAE: Update from Dubai

I just returned from a business trip to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which shed a great bit of light on compliance trends in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, particularly the UAE.  In conversations with numerous experts across different points in the compliance spectrum, the takeaway was that there is an evident trend of increased attention and care towards US (and increasingly regional/domestic) compliance directives. These indeed appear to be setting the tone of financial institutions in the Gulf region.  This of course begs the question of where do they stand vis-a-vis compliance?

Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA)

FATCA is the word on the street. There is increased interest and awareness of this law in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, but particularly in the Gulf.  For those who don’t recall,

Compliance in the Gulf

FATCA (largely codified in Chapter 26 of the Code of Federal Regulations) is the new U.S. regulation which requires foreign banks to report accounts they maintain for U.S. taxpayers to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), America’s federal taxation authority.  Banks that do not comply with FATCA regulations can run the risk of substantial (up to 30%) withholding on certain payments.  Given the high number of US taxpayers maintaining accounts in the Gulf (due to residence, convenience, or whatever other reason), this is quite significant.  There do not appear to be any banks refusing to take US taxpayers as a result, although this decision has been reportedly taken by some banks in Switzerland, for example.

Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML)

Eyes are indeed on Iran and Syria, particularly the former. While many are awaiting any deal between the P5+1 negotiations involving Iran’s nuclear program, compliance with OFAC is of significant concern.  Formal banking with Iran is almost non-existent and banks are vigilant, having received a directive from the UAE Central Bank.  What was quite impressed was the depth of knowledge regarding OFAC and US regulations, though this is arguably not at the level of what US banks know, naturally.  (Interestingly, one compliance person from a large European bank told me something to the effect of “in a few years we’ll all be doing RMB transactions, so these things won’t really be important”!)

In Summary

The bottom line is that US compliance is a critical step that is only starting to be fully appreciated in the MENA region. With Dubai’s increasing role as a banking center, the need to have robust compliance practices in place will only be more heightened.  This is accentuated by the Emirate’s geographic positioning in a generally troubled region and close to high exposure points.  Indeed the reputation of turning a blind eye to financial crimes is arguably becoming more obsolete.

Given the trends in the United States’ regulatory landscape and the increasing extraterritorial reach of its laws, GCC banks are well-suited to adopt rigorous compliance programs that are mindful not only of sanctioned countries, but sanctioned entities, and of cognizant of the use of front companies and individuals. This means more Know Your Customer (KYC), heightened screening, better documentation and reporting, and expanded training to lower levels of bank management, particularly the “frontline” in the retail banking sector.  Over time, a financial institution in the Gulf may find itself more needing of programs that are more closely aligned to those found in their US counterparts.

 

 

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Will Sanctions Cost You Your Bank Account?

An increasing issue I am seeing with Iranian-American clients is banks in the United States closing their bank accounts. Why? Reasons can vary, but perhaps the sanctions and anti-money laundering (AML) regulations have a role in this. Indeed from national banks to small banks, we have seen a number of people receive notice from their bank that their account will be shut down.  Believe it or not, OFAC regulations on Iran, Cuba, Syria, and other countries could have a role here.  Clearly it does not happen for everybody, but it does happen.  In the past, the fear was mainly that your bank may reject an innocuous incoming wire coming into your account. That concern is still very, very real, but fear not, there are ways to help reduce the risk of account closure happening to you.

Why is my bank closing my account?

There can be a number of reasons here, but we’re only going to focus on the sanctions issues. Due to many regulations aimed at preventing money laundering and sanctions violations, many banks appear to be taking increasingly conservative positions and more carefully scrutinizing account activity. Each bank has its own criteria as to what constitutes “high risk” in a given bank account and discretion over what accounts they will close.  Reasons can vary – too many foreign wires coming into your account (for example, from Kuwait, Hong Kong, Dubai, etc.) or perhaps transactions that are not consistent with your financial profile (say receiving $200,000 in cash over 5 months when your annual salary is $120,000).

It’s obviously not per se illegal to receive a lot of money in your bank account or receive money from overseas, but don’t forget that the private sector has often taken a much more conservative position that what may be required by the applicable sanctions regulations and laws (I once had a case where a client’s bank in the US had no issue with a licensed transfer, but the same bank’s UAE subsidiary did!).  This means a lot of legitimate activities can face issues. You should really put yourself in the bank’s position – they have responsibilities and they don’t know you that well. So that inheritance from Iran or that gift mom and dad are sending you could look like money laundering to somebody else’s eyes. Why have you (an engineer in Orange County, for example) been receiving wires from Kuwait, Hong Kong, and Turkey in recent months?

How can I prevent a closure from happening?

Each bank has its own standards and criteria in determining what accounts to close and there’s no straight formula. However, there are things one can do to make sure the funds don’t cause problems (don’t forget, another possibility is your bank holding your funds and/or sending the money back to the currency exchange or “sarraf” that sent the funds!).

1. Communicating with the bank.  I often tell clients that it’s safe to say that their branch managers generally don’t make the calls on their account. It’s necessary to talk to the higher ups.  I have found many bank officials to be very accommodating and friendly after a conversation and/or correspondence with them explaining the outstanding logistics issues.  In fact, even I have been presently surprised at the willingness of a number of them to handle legitimate transactions once the conversation or correspondence exchange occurs.

2. Giving your bank written assurances. Preparing affidavits and other supporting documents (depending on the situation) are steps I generally take to help our clients from facing problems. “Papering the transaction” is a way to show the bank that the transaction is authorized, as sometimes an OFAC license might not be enough.

3. If necessary, get a license! It’s amazing how many people muster the bravado to engage in transactions in Iran that require OFAC licenses, well, without a license. Then they try to send the funds. Be they profits from a family business you have had no role in, or the proceeds of a house you sold in Iran, some transactions definitely need license.  I will note, however, that not all transactions need a license. You should make sure of the status of your transaction – is it generally licensed or does it require specific authorization? An OFAC license can help move things quicker (and help you in a potential enforcement issue – remember, rejected funds result in reports to OFAC, which can then follow-up with you through an Administrative Subpoena).

4. Use the OFAC License Number!  As specific licenses issued by OFAC often tend to state, you should use the OFAC License number in the payment description. This will help the bank see that the incoming transfer is licensed, likely helping reduce potential red flags.  Even when a transaction does not need an OFAC license (as not all transfers do) it is still important to make sure you have crossed all your t’s and dotted all your i’s.

Naturally, these are just some of the steps that can be done. You still have the natural requirements that you ensure that no Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) are involved in the transfer and that the funds from Iran are processed through a non-U.S., non-Iranian bank in a third country.  While there is no guaranteed way to prevent problems, the above steps could potentially help you a great bit.

Know Your Customer: What Your Bank Needs to Know

One of the most prominent issues that has emerged from the US’ broad sanctions on Iran is US (and other) banks’ increasing reluctance to deal with anything having a connection to Iran.  Why?  For one, the US Department of Treasury has avidly gone about discouraging foreign banks from dealing with Iran. Further, several years back, it removed the previous exception for “U-Turn” transactions, whereby certain Iranian transactions could be processes through US banks. To this day, certain transfers (even somewhat direct) are permitted between the two states but they have become nearly impossible.

What is message here? Presumably fearful of having something illicit fall through the cracks and facing hefty OFAC penalties the way certain major international institutions have in recent years, banks have increasingly turned their backs towards even permitted transactions.  BHFA Law Group regularly sees cases where Iranian origin from third countries are rejected by US banks or even situations where U.S. banks close down depositors’ accounts.

Although each case is different, the pattern seems to be that banks are increasingly weary of average individuals engaging in what may appear as awkward behavior.  Having faced the wrath of sanctions for the past 30+ years, many Iranian-Americans in large part have in large part become “immune” to strange activities that others in their community go through to receive funds or even the nature of these transactions.  For example, many of us know that Iranian-origin funds generally need to arrive in the US from a third country.  However, few seem to notice that to the eyes of the outside world, the idea of average people with average incomes receiving large funds from banks in Kuwait or Dubai is not, well, an average issue. Further, inheritance and family monetary gifts, as I have often stated, tend to be large in the Iranian-American community.  This is in part related to cultural matters, but also events in Iran, such as high inflation (including real estate), and the increasing concentration of wealth. Therefore, many Iranian-Americans who receive funds in the US, be it their own money or gifts, may be receiving money in much larger quantities or from arguably more unusual sources than other individuals.  This may give their US banks pause, causing them to send the money back, close accounts, and in some cases, even freeze funds. Imagine if you worked in a bank compliance department and suddenly saw a customer with a $70,000 income receiving a $2 million inheritance or a $500,000 gift that came in through a wire from Turkey?  Happens in our community all the time, but could be quite strange to others.

What’s the take home message here? On top of ensuring that your transaction is legal, you should also take proactive steps.  Educate your bank as to who you are and what you do.  If you have an OFAC license, share it with your bank. File transfer affidavits with appropriate language before your money comes in.  The minute a wire is rejected, the US bank has to notify OFAC, and that can lead to an Administrative Subpoena being sent to you – a hefty request that can take a lot of your time, and if you hire a lawyer, a fair bit of money. If a bank has certain assurances that the transaction is authorized and legitimate, then it will very likely be less averse towards it.

Remember, the staff members at your bank branch likely want to help you, but they generally have limited authority. Playing golf with your branch manager every day will not guarantee that your funds arrive or that your account won’t be closed.  More broadly, banks have to deal with numerous compliance issues, from anti-money laundering to various OFAC regulations and sanctions that have nothing to do with Iran. They do not spend all their time on Iran and it’s not common for a bank compliance officer to know all the ins and outs of US sanctions on Iran  Therefore it is exceptionally helpful to have the necessary conversations and provide the necessary paperwork (referencing applicable laws and regulations, providing correct narratives, etc.) to your bank to demystify legitimate transactions that unfortunately often seem to bear illegitimate appearances. It goes without saying I’ve had a number of very productive calls with bank personnel who seem relieved and happy when I tell them I’m going to be sending them documents (such as letters and/or affidavits) regarding the clients’ upcoming transactions.   Do yourself and your bank a favor – make sure you are doing everything in a compliant way and make sure your bank knows that you are!

Yes, You Can Still Transfer Funds From Iran

The recent news on increased sanctions on Iran has stirred concern among many that transferring funds out of Iran is no longer permitted.  This is not true.  Although the Iranian government has itself placed certain limits on foreign exchange trading, transfers for specifically or generally licensed activities are still permitted, subject to certain conditions.

How does this work? President Obama Issued an Executive Order (13599) in early February which effectively called for the blocking of any funds coming into US jurisdiction in which Iranian financial institutions have an interest. Remember, blocking is different from rejection – blocking is when the entity (such as the bank) coming into control of the funds effectively freezes the money and places it in an interest-bearing account (which you cannot access until the block is removed), whereas rejecting is when the money is sent back to the sender.

Does this mean that all types of family gifts, inheritances, and sale proceeds of real estate holdings in Iran will be blocked? No.  Along with Executive Order 13599 came General License B, which preserves a previously existing exception in the Iranian Transactions Regulations (ITR).  General License B states that US banks can still process authorized funds such as family remittances, to and from Iran.  This is of course conditioned upon the the funds being processed through a third country (e.g., Turkey, Kuwait, or UAE) bank subject to certain other restrictions.

What has become increasingly important is that individuals conducting banking activities with foreign countries need to be exceptionally careful that their bank in the US knows what is going on. There are several ways to help reduce the risk of your bank mistakenly rejecting the funds or closing your account altogether (a phenomenon I’m seeing increasingly).

OFAC adds Syrian TV & Radio to SDN List

The Office of Foreign Assets Control on Monday added the Syrian General Organization of Radio and Television to the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.  This is a very interesting designation as the entity at issue is a media outlet.  The designation follows the release by OFAC of Syria General License Number 15 (which covers intellectual property issues) and the amendment of Syria General License Number 5A, both of which were announced on February 23.

Doing Business With Iran: Prohibitions and Permissions

I’ve often joked that many people in the U.S., particularly within the Iranian-American community, engage in business with Iran with a lack of knowledge about the sanctions and in a matter as if they are dealing with a non-sanctioned country like Switzerland or Japan.  Some of this is understandable – U.S. sanctions with Iran are very complicated and there are many laws one could never assume exist based on simple common sense.  For example, who would have thought that a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident generally cannot sell his or her own property in Iran without a license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), or that he or she cannot even work in most jobs in Iran without an OFAC license?.   Today’s posting is about doing business with Iran and what you should know.

Most Business By U.S. Persons with Iran is Prohibited

Before we get into what is permitted and prohibited, let’s first determine whether you meet the definition of a “U.S. person.”  The Iranian Transactions Regulations, 31 CFR Part 560 (2011) (the “ITR”) define “U.S. Person” as any individual with U.S. citizenship or permanent residency wherever they are (including Iran) and U.S. companies around the world. It also includes individuals physically in the United States (such as people here on work and student visas, or even tourist visas!) and companies formed under U.S. law.  It is irrelevant if you also hold an Iranian passport, a Canadian passport, a French passport, or any other nationality. If you meet the above criteria, you are a U.S. person, and this status does not magically disappear when you set foot on Iranian soil.

What types of activities are U.S. Persons prohibited from engaging in with Iran?  Most business by U.S. persons with Iran is prohibited, including dealings with non-U.S. goods.  But let’s first start with what is allowed.

What type of business can be done by U.S. persons in Iran?

As a U.S. person, you generally can:

  1. Engage in certain dealings in informational materials, such as exporting books, movies, music and art from the U.S. to Iran, and importing such products from Iran to the U.S.;
  2. Export certain limited types of free communications software;
  3. Export most types of food products to Iran;
  4. Obtain a specific license from OFAC to export or deal in medical supplies, medical equipment, and pharmaceuticals for use in Iran;
  5. Obtain a specific license from OFAC to rent out property you may have owned from before you came to the U.S. (as an example);
  6. Engage in certain travel related business with Iran (such as sell plane tickets to Iran);
  7. Provide certain legal services to people in Iran;
  8. Register U.S. intellectual property such as patents and trademarks  in Iran (or Iranian IP here in the United States); and
  9. Apply for a license for most other transactions – although OFAC will review and accept on a case-by-case basis (note OFAC is not bound by precedent and is generally not fond of most activities that will promote U.S.-Iran trade ties)

A fairly narrow window of activities I would say!

What can you not do with Iran?

As a U.S. person, unless you have a specific license from OFAC, you cannot, among other things:

    1. Sell most goods to Iran from the U.S. or from any third country jurisdiction, like Germany or Dubai;
    2. Facilitate trade with Iran, such as arrange for a shipment of Chinese goods from China to Iran, provide credit to enable such a transaction, work for a Korean company on most deals related to Iran, or work in a Dubai company on reexport transactions with Iran;
    3. Invest in Iran, such as building an apartment building, opening a factory, running a factory, etc. (bear in mind one Iranian American was fined $30,000 in late 2010 for a “non-egregious” investment in a family catering business);
    4. Run a business in Iran such as a bookstore, or an engineering firm;
    5. Work in Iran or for Iranian companies, whether you are sitting in your house in the United States and working remotely for a company in Iran, or whether you move to Iran and work for a company there, or even work for an Iranian company in London, Istanbul, or Dubai;
    6. Deposit and maintain money in banks in Iran, even in non-sanctioned private banks; or
    7. Import most goods from Iran, even through a third country like Australia or India;
    8. Set up a company overseas to deal with Iran.

One can effectively sum up U.S. policy on this issue as follows: outside the spread of informational materials which promote the free flow of ideas between the countries and the sale of humanitarian goods such as most foods, medicines and medical supplies, the United States generally does not want U.S. persons to do business with Iran.  As such, once you become a U.S. person you effectively have to sever business ties with Iran.

It may be very fashionable or convenient to live in the United States but live on money you make in Iran, but realize this can lead to exceptional civil and criminal liabilities under U.S. law.  Note that you can apply for a specific license from Iran to sell your commercial interests in Iran (be it a company you owned, shares of stock, rental property, or inherited interests in a business venture, etc.).

Despite the many economic problems in Iran, the reality is that Iran is a very rich country with high liquidity and plenty of business opportunities.  However, the more significant reality, arguably, is that Iran is under comprehensive U.S., and increasingly European Union (EU) sanctions.   Given the hostilities between the United States and Iran, it should be expected that commercial relations are very limited.

There’s a reason you don’t see direct flights, banking relations, Starbucks Coffee, the Gap, McDonald’s, Wells Fargo, Accenture, General Motors dealerships, or Crate & Barrel etc. in Iran (further, it’s not so odd that you do see many non-U.S. chains like Benetton, Mango, and Carrefour, which are not limited by U.S. sanctions).  Be sure that it has already occurred to most U.S. giants that Iran could be profitable.  Many people have already wanted (and already have, when relations were better) thought of exporting Caterpillar bulldozers and Levi’s jeans to Iran.  (I should note some of these types of goods are in Iran legally, but there is an exceptionally complex story behind that).  The sanctions are not just a government-to-government matter, and having dual citizenship does not give you special rights.

What if You Have Committed a Violation?

It is critical that one evaluate any history of violations, and if you are a business in the U.S. doing international work, you should seriously consider implementing a compliance program. I have seen certain U.S. businesses that have a heavy risk factor with respect to Iran – employees shuttling back and forth (or even moonlighting on projects in Iran!), or in one case a business where the owner also owned ongoing businesses in Iran. I even heard of one case where a gentleman in the U.S. was monitoring his factory in Iran via webcam! These are all exceptionally prohibited activities and one should take an abundance of caution.

The ITR and related regulations tend to be incredibly nuanced.  Therefore, when in doubt always seek the advice of an expert.  Business activities with sanctioned countries (not just Iran but others such as Cuba and Syria) is not a place for guesswork.

Libya – The Next Frontier for U.S. Business?

International media showered viewers with historic images of the Libyan rebels parading into Tripoli and chipping away at the final vestiges of Muammar Qadhafi’s 42-year rule.  The past 42 years were wrought with lost opportunities for a country with a relatively low population and wealthy in natural resources.  With the emergence of the Transitional National Council (TNC) as the new governing power in Libya, there is some optimism for what the future may bring for global, particularly U.S. business.

International business is not an entirely new prospect to Libya.  A number of years had passed since Qadhafi had terminated Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program (among other conciliatory gestures) and that Libya had been to some extent reincorporated into the international community.  However, 2011 has been a year of fighting, and turn of political events had been very troublesome for American business.  This was not the least because of the constant sanctioning of Libyan state-affiliated entities by the U.S. Treasury Department – an action that was throwing oil companies up in arms with a constant need for submissions and permissions to continue doing business in Libya.  Some businesses simply picked up and left, not wanting to be tied up in a civil war.

Libya has the potential of holding immense opportunities for U.S. businesses in the short and long terms. Why?

1. Libya is a wealthy country.  According to OPEC, Libya in 2010 was ranked 7th in the world in proven oil reserves, holding 3.9% (as a comparison, Iraq holds 12% and Qatar holds 2.1%). With less than 7 million people, there is a high per capita GDP (the 2009 estimate cited by the U.S. State Department is $13,400).  Literacy rates are not low either – the CIA World Factbook puts it at over 80%.

2. Libya is underdeveloped relative to its wealth.  Decades of sanctions and international isolation have taken their toll on Libya.  Investment in the energy industry has been healthy, but Libya holds potential in terms of various knowledge-based sectors and the infrastructure (utilities, transportation, tourism, health care, etc.) could potentially use substantial investment, particularly after the NATO strikes of recent months.

3. Libya does not appear prone to internal strife.  Libya’s demographics do not appear to lend it to sectarianism by some accounts.  Therefore, the likelihood of an Iraq-type civil war appear very low.

4. Libya is geographically well positioned.  It’s no surprise that Italy imports a great deal of Libyan oil, the history between the two countries aside.  Libya is smack across southern Europe on the other side of the Mediterranean.  This makes its energy sectors very attractive as there is no need to take oil across the Persian Gulf or the Suez Canal to deliver to Europe and the U.S.  Also, sectors like tourism can benefit immensely from this proximity to continental Europe.

In all, the signs are promising.  How long it will take the TNC to establish a stable government and what types of legal and economic reforms are intended are as of yet unknown. What is known is that a number of western countries are not only poised to release billions in frozen Libyan assets but to remove trade barriers and promote bilateral trade.  This could bode well for U.S. business, particularly as the U.S. economy digs itself out of a recession.