Switzerland Is the First Country to Lift Some Sanctions on Iran

August 17, 2015

Certain US sanctions on Iran may be lifted mid to late 2016 or even later.

On August 13, Switzerland became the first country to formally lift certain sanctions on Iran, following the announcement of the Iran nuclear deal this past July. Switzerland is not a party to the Iran nuclear deal.

The Swiss Federal Council made the decision, which is a seven-member executive council that constitutes the federal government of Switzerland and serves as the Swiss collective head of government and state. This action nullifies a ban on precious metals transactions with Iranian governmental bodies and the requirement to report trade in Iranian petrochemical products to the Swiss government. It also eliminates an obligation to report to the Swiss government the transport of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products and certain rules on insurance and reinsurance policies linked to such transactions. In the financial sector, threshold values for reporting and licensing obligations in relation to money transfers from and to Iranian nationals were increased tenfold.

These Swiss measures had already been suspended since January 2014, but by lifting them on an apparently more formal or permanent basis, the Swiss government patently appears to be sending a far larger political message to sanctions compliance personnel. The Swiss government’s announcement stated, in part, the following:

Today's decision by the Federal Council underlines its support for the ongoing process to implement the nuclear agreement, and its confidence in the constructive intentions of the negotiating parties. The Federal Council also wishes to signal that Switzerland's positioning with respect to Iran, which was developed and maintained over a number of years, should be used to promote a broad political and economic exchange with Iran. In recent decades, Switzerland has pursued a consistent, neutral and balanced policy with regard to Iran . . . . Should implementation of the agreement fail, the Federal Council reserves the right to reintroduce the lifted measures.

It seems clear that the Swiss Federal Council is signaling that Switzerland is eager to resume normal business with Iran. Meanwhile, however, US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said US sanctions continue to remain in place and penalties would still apply to any country or company that violates them. He told reporters that the United States wasn’t informed in advance of the Swiss move to drop its sanctions before Iran has taken the promised steps to curb its nuclear program and before the United States, European Union, and United Nations have removed their penalties.

It is also important to remember that for now, US secondary Iran sanctions will continue to remain in effect against foreign companies for probably the next 12 months or until the implementation day, no matter the consequence of this Swiss Federal Council action.

Moreover, “US Persons” are prohibited from entering into executory contracts for Iran-related transactions until US sanctions are lifted after implementation day. The US Department of State has recently suggested that that day may fall in summer or autumn of 2016, depending if and whether the International Atomic Energy Agency can certify that Iran has taken the required steps under the Iran nuclear deal.

“US persons” means US nationals, US permanent resident aliens (“Green Card holders”), entities incorporated in the United States, individuals or entities in the United States, or entities established or maintained outside the United States that are owned or controlled by a US person. For a US person to sign such an executory contract before implementation day would be a dealing in property or an interest in property involving Iran or a Specially Designated National, which is prohibited by current US regulations as applicable to US persons. The current Iran sanctions regulations expressly state that such executory contracts are property or an interest in property because they involve “contracts of any nature whatsoever, and any other property, real, personal, or mixed, tangible or intangible, or interest or interests therein, present, future, or contingent.”

On the other hand, it appears that non–US persons (as defined above) that have no US nexus (e.g., not incorporated in the United States or owned or controlled by a US person), that do not act in or through the United States or a US person and that otherwise are not generally subject to US jurisdiction may enter into executory contracts with Iran without risk of exposure of an Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) enforcement case for so doing. Even in these cases, potential non–US person investors in Iran are well advised to seek clearance from the relevant regulators that these contracts do not violate United Nations, European Union, or other non–US sanctions.

At this time, it is unclear to what extent entities established or maintained outside the United States that are owned or controlled by a “US person” will be able to engage in trade with Iran after implementation day occurs. OFAC has indicated that it will resolve this question in due course, and at that time, it will issue appropriate guidance.