Memo on OFAC Compliance for Academics

At the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Annual Meeting in San Antonio in November 2018, MESA members requested that MESA’s Task Force on Civil and Human Rights prepare basic guidance concerning compliance with OFAC sanctions for those seeking to conduct academic research in impacted countries. This memorandum provides general and preliminary advice on this question for those whose research on Iran, Sudan and Syria may be affected by OFAC sanctions. At the outset, we note that any researcher planning to travel to these countries should consult their university’s general counsel’s office prior to completing such plans in order to receive the most updated guidance and to obtain institutional support in determining whether to apply for a license. MESA strongly urges all universities to support their faculty, research scholars and graduate students in this process.

Regrettably, it is not possible to provide a one-size-fits-all primer on OFAC sanctions compliance as the specific sanctions applicable to each country are distinctive and also vary over time as additional entities, institutions and individuals are added to the sanctions list. The sanctions are generally designed to prohibit the import or export of services or information and technology to and from embargoed countries. As a result, the sanctions are crafted in such a way as to have the collateral effect of significantly impeding academic research. As an example, we are aware of one instance in which receiving a non-monetary award recognizing distinction in academic achievement from an Iranian institution was sufficient to expose a U.S.-based academic to liability. We are also aware that scholars traveling to countries subject to OFAC sanctions may be questioned by customs or other officials before their departure or after their return and should be prepared to answer queries concerning the sources of their research funding, planned expenditures, purchases and research activities.

For your convenience, you may access from the following hyperlinks the relevant guidance from OFAC concerning licensing guidelines for Iran, Sudan and Syria (but check the OFAC website for the most updated version of the guidelines). These guidelines define the circumstances under which academics may obtain permission from OFAC to conduct research in a country subject to sanctions. There are also other federal agencies that maintain “restricted party lists” that may include restricted universities (you will need to consult your university general counsel for guidance on the affected universities in your country of interest, but there are a significant number in Iran especially).

As is evident from a cursory review of these guidelines, the restrictions applicable to academic research vary by country but may include participation in and attendance at academic conferences, uncompensated academic interviews with public universities tied to government entities under sanctions, agreements for research collaboration with researchers at institutions subject to sanctions, making or receiving payments to/from sanctioned countries or parties (including to cover or reimburse travel and accommodation), exporting or importing items to/from sanctioned countries or parties (including personal computing devices and software intended for use in research), and even travel for research purposes into the country.

Depending on the type of research that is to be conducted, one may obtain permission from OFAC either automatically through a general license or by applying for a specific license. As the OFAC guidance makes clear, the type of activity that falls under a general license typically involves undergraduate exchanges rather than scholarly research. In obtaining a specific license for research purposes, the subject matter of research is pertinent with scientific research (in STEM subjects) granted a greater degree of freedom than other types of research. 

Conducting non-STEM academic research will typically require obtaining a specific license from OFAC.  To understand what research qualifies, one would have to refer to the general license requirements pertaining to permissible academic purposes for each country. While the guidance for Sudan and Iran provides for general licenses that cover certain academic exchanges as well as transactions “necessary and ordinarily incident to” the publishing and marketing of manuscripts, books, journals and newspapers, including editing, the Syrian licensing guidelines are far more restrictive, encompassing only activities related to publishing materials. 

Research universities may have offices specifically dedicated to research policy and compliance. These will likely be risk averse and counsel academics in ways that impose severe constraints on research. Regrettably, however, to take a less risk averse approach may expose academics to liability. Here are examples of sample guidance concerning compliance with Iran sanctions prepared by a number of universities, including the University of California, Irvine (2014), Columbia University (2018), and University of Colorado.

In preparing this memo, the Task Force consulted with a researcher who traveled to Iran under an OFAC license to develop a concrete example of what was entailed. The first step was applying for a specific license. You may see a redacted version of that application here. The process of applying for a license from OFAC does not involve the simple completion of forms. Rather, you will be required to make a case for the importance of your research, including a narrative description of the project and its significance as substantial as a prospectus (with a length of as much as 20 pages). In preparing such materials you might wish to consult with university counsel or hire a private lawyer to assist and advise with strategies for making a successful case. It is difficult to know precisely what they are looking for, but providing as much detailed information as possible is advisable as any question that is raised by the reviewer may result in considerable additional delay. If your research is likely to bring you in contact with “specially designated nationals,” you will need to provide additional reasons explaining that aspect of the research. To determine whether this step is necessary you must consult the most updated list of specially designated nationals and institutions, which may include public universities (and faculty and academic staff employed there), state media organs, and other institutions that may be of interest for your research.

Regulations also govern what kind of hardware you are allowed to travel with—you will not be permitted to bring a laptop or other technological aids for your research with you, but there is no restriction on purchasing technology once you have entered Iran (though there will likely be restrictions on bringing such technology back with you on return to the U.S.). There are also restrictions on the use of grants or research funds within the country (and these rules may be even more restrictive in the cases of researchers who are dual nationals or travel under the guise of a family visit with the intention of conducting research). For sole nationals of an affected country (i.e., Iranian, Syrian and Sudanese nationals without an alternate passport based at U.S. institutions), there may be further restrictions on travel and obstacles to returning to the U.S. imposed by the Department of Homeland Security that will require consulting with an immigration attorney in addition to counsel assisting with the OFAC licensing process.

Because of the many complications of the licensing process, it is highly advisable to consult a lawyer to assist in the process. University counsel and specialized outside counsel may both be used. Compliance is an onerous process, but it is worth underscoring that pursuing research in these countries is a matter of academic freedom. Neither the U.S. government nor any university administration should discourage academics from undertaking research, subject to relevant regulations, in these countries. OFAC provides a licensing process that is designed to make such research possible, and universities should support faculty and researchers seeking to make use of a license to pursue their research, including by making legal counsel available to assist in the application process.

In conclusion, while there is no general guidance applicable across countries affected by OFAC and other federal sanctions, it is possible to apply for a license to conduct research in affected countries with the assistance of your university’s general counsel’s office or office on research policy and compliance. If the type of research contemplated does not fall under the category of a general license (which much research would not), then creating a plan and applying for a specific license from OFAC for the relevant country is a necessary first step in preparing for research travel. This process can be quite time-consuming, so scholars considering academic research in a sanctioned country would be well advised to begin planning for the licensing process at least one year prior to the expected travel date (though allowing for even more time is advisable). The link to apply for such a license online is here: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/pages/licensing.aspx .

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