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Since 1996, Congress and successive Administrations have put in place steps to try to force foreign energy firms to choose between participating in the U.S. market, or continuing to operate in or conduct various energy-related transactions with Iran.
The Iran Sanctions Act and CISADA Amendments
The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) is the core of those U.S. sanctions intended to force foreign firms out of the Iran market. It took advantage of the opportunity for the United States to try to harm Iran's energy sector when Iran, in November 1995, opened the sector to foreign investment. To accommodate its insistence on retaining control of its national resources, Iran used a "buy-back" investment program in which foreign firms gradually recoup their investments as oil and gas is discovered and then produced. With input from the Administration, on September 8, 1995, Senator Alfonse D'Amato introduced the "Iran Foreign Oil Sanctions Act" to sanction foreign firms' exports to Iran of energy technology. A revised version instead sanctioning investment in Iran's energy sector passed the Senate on December 18, 1995 (voice vote). On December 20, 1995, the Senate passed a version applying the provisions to Libya, which was refusing to yield for trial the two intelligence agents suspected in the December 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am 103. The House passed H.R. 3107, on June 19, 1996 (415-0), and then concurred on a Senate version adopted on July 16, 1996 (unanimous consent). The Iran and Libya Sanctions Act was signed on August 5, 1996 (P.L. 104-172).
ISA has attracted substantial attention because it is an "extra-territorial sanction"--it authorizes U.S. penalties against foreign firms, many of which are incorporated in countries that are U.S. allies. When it was first enacted in 1996, Congress and the Clinton Administration saw ISA as a potential mechanism to compel U.S. allies to join the United States in enacting trade sanctions against Iran. American firms are separately restricted from trading with or investing in Iran under separate U.S. executive orders, as discussed below. Its application has been further expanded by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2012 (CISADA, P.L. 111-195 enacted July 1, 2010) as well as by Executive Order 13590, issued November 21, 2011.
Originally called the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), ISA was enacted to try to deny Iran the resources to further its nuclear program and to support terrorist organizations such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Iran's petroleum sector generates about 20% of Iran's GDP (which is about $870 billion), 80% of its exports, and 60% to 70% of its government revenue. Iran's oil sector is as old as the petroleum industry itself (early 20th century), and Iran's onshore oil fields and oil industry infrastructure are far past peak production and in need of substantial investment. Its large natural gas resources (940 trillion cubic feet, exceeded only by Russia) were virtually undeveloped when ISA was first enacted. Iran has 136.3 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, the third-largest after Saudi Arabia and Canada. With the exception of relatively small swap and barter arrangements with neighboring countries, virtually all of Iran's oil exports flow through the Strait of Hormuz, which carries about one-third of all internationally traded oil exported by Iran and other countries on the Persian Gulf.
ISA consists of a number of "triggers"--transactions with Iran that would be considered violations of ISA and could cause a firm or entity to be sanctioned under ISA's provisions. When triggered, ISA provides a number of different sanctions that the President could impose that would harm a foreign firm's business opportunities in the United States. ISA does not, and probably could not practically, compel any foreign government to act against one of its firms.
ISA primarily targets foreign firms, because American firms are already prohibited from investing in Iran under the 1995 trade and investment ban discussed below. The original version of ISA requires the President to sanction companies (entities, persons) that make an "investment" (1) of more than $20 million (2) in one year in Iran's energy sector. (3) The definition of "investment" in ISA ([section] 14 (9)) includes not only equity and royalty arrangements (including additions to existing investment, as added by P.L. 107-24) but any contract that includes "responsibility for the development of petroleum resources" of Iran.
CISADA did not alter this trigger but it did amend the definition of investment to include pipelines to or through Iran and contracts to lead the construction, upgrading, or expansions of energy projects. CISADA also eliminated the wording in the original version of ISA that specifically exempts from sanctions sales of energy-related equipment to Iran. However, to be sanctionable, such sales would need to be structured as investments or ongoing profit-earning ventures rather than simple sales transactions.
The Iran Freedom Support Act (P.L. 109-293) amended ISA to add a trigger: that sanctions should be imposed on entities that sell to Iran weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology or "destabilizing numbers and types" of advanced conventional weapons.
CISADA: Amended ISA by Adding a Trigger--Sales to Iran of Gasoline and Related Equipment and Services
ISA, as initially constituted, did not address Iran's gasoline dependency because sales to Iran of gasoline were not sanctionable under ISA. Nor did the original version sanction the selling to Iran of equipment with which it can build or expand its refineries using its own construction capabilities. (4) And, it did not clearly apply to Iranian investments in oil refineries in several other countries, such as Iranian investment to help build oil refineries in Asia or elsewhere.
Many in Congress argued that ISA should be applied to gasoline sales to Iran because Iran is dependent on gasoline imports to meet about 40% of its gasoline needs and there were a limited group of major gasoline suppliers to Iran. Others, however, believed the Iranian government would have numerous ways to circumvent its effects, including rationing, reducing gasoline subsidies in …