By Mehrnoosh Aryanpour

What an 'Impossibility Clause' can make possible

February 12, 2018

Ensuring business continuity for Iranian joint venture projects with foreigners under changing international sanctions regimes is the question.

Since the implementation of the JCPOA in January of 2016, and throughout the current period of accelerating investment by foreign enterprises in Iran, many participants have taken for granted that in the event of a “Snapback” or the reimposition of UN, U.S. and EU sanctions under the provisions of the JCPOA, foreigners must perforce exit all investments in Iran and Iran’s major industries would be relegated to the shadows as an unlawful destination for foreign capital.
The operative assumption has been that any such reimposition of sanctions under a Snapback scenario would make it “impossible” for such foreign participants to maintain, lawfully, their investments in the various projects within Iran, investment they have made a huge effort to structure and uphold in the still-new era of significantly relaxed sanctions.  In fact, the very idea of the impossibility of maintaining significant investments in Iran under such sanctions has become something of a fixation. To the dismay of Iranian partners in various ventures, their foreign partners tend to focus on securing their own interests, rights, and recompense under a Snapback. An efficient exit strategy is often sought.

In reality, those who are here on the ground in Iran know that, regardless of the whims of the American President or the vicissitudes of foreign capital flows, the continued development and renovation of Iran’s domestic economy, both in terms of absolute production, as well as in terms of sophistication, efficiency, and integration, will continue apace, and therefore, the wiser among the stewards of foreign investment in Iran understand that it is as much a question of ensuring business continuity for their Iranian-Foreign joint venture projects despite changing international sanctions regimes, which have been imposed by the West against Iran for decades.

As a result, the most basic and fundamental considerations for any prospective foreign project participant and its Iranian partner become:
1. How the foreign participant can, through appropriately drafted “Impossibility Clause(s)”, remain invested in the Iranian venture for as long as possible under the threat of renewed or reimposed sanctions, and without incurring unacceptable risk.

2. How the foreign participant can contractually envision the broadest range of adverse sanctions scenarios through a single and efficient impossibility mechanism.
3. How the foreign participant can provide for a gradual approach to any putative withdrawal procedure, as opposed to the simplistic solution of outright termination upon Snapback after a period of suspension.

4. How the foreign participant can, in the event of the extinguishment of impossibility, subsequent relaxation or obtained exemption of sanctions, reasonably provide for the right, or at least the option, for itself to reenter an investment project which it may have exited because of Snapback.

The legal thought process underpinning successful solutions which industry practitioners may be likely to embrace is beyond the scope of this article, but the conceptual summary can be a useful guide for all of us as we come to grips with what can be made possible by “Impossibility Clauses”.

1. Remaining invested, minimizing risk: Of course, it is true that for many projects, a direct investment by the foreign participant though its stake in an Iranian joint venture entity may be the most straightforward means of effecting the transfer of capital that allows the foreign party to have a stake in a project.  It also allows for the simplest mechanism by which a foreign party may apply for and successfully obtain an investment license in accordance with the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act.

Nonetheless, such a direct investment may, particularly in the case of European entities which also do business in U.S. jurisdictions or in jurisdictions which have significant links with the U.S. financial system, provide little or no cushion under even the most benign reimposition of any form of secondary sanctions.  This is because the direct investment leaves the foreign party little room to maneuver by way of restructuring or otherwise allocating its participatory interest in the project as sanctions change.

For this reason, a more effective solution could include the formation of a foreign special purpose vehicle to act for the project entity.  In the case of a joint venture, an SPV incorporated in a jurisdiction less likely to be adversely affected by reimposition of sanctions would allow for a more flexible platform to facilitate intelligent solutions such as exit and re-entry options, trustee or agency relationships, and contingent sale-repurchase strategies to prepare for the worst outcome of a sanctions scenario which may force a foreign party to exit Iranian investment.  

2. Knowing unknowns, counting uncountables: Even now, with the most recently issued ultimatum by the American President declaring that the end of the JCPOA as we know it is nigh (to be either amended or abrogated, if Mr. Trump is to be believed), there exists a wide variety of circumstances involving the reimposition of sanctions, ranging from those that would make the maintenance of an interest in a project by a foreign party merely inconvenient to those which would make maintaining such an interest lawfully untenable.   These may range from largely toothless, otherwise symbolic targeted secondary sanctions which apply only to the entities of specific countries, as we have continued to see since Trump's October 2017 decertification, or those which may apply only to certain economic sectors or types of goods or projects, to those which render further financial flows in support of such a project functionally impracticable.  Most challenging of all would be the failure of the UN to continue to waive the imposition of sanctions against Iran.

Thus, a single mechanism to classify sanctions in some way as materially adverse changes and evaluate consequences seems a more pragmatic solution than contemplating what may constitute an "impossibility" event, and including it under grounds for termination.

Under a scenario in which the foreign party has made appropriate structuring preparations as suggested, the determining exit remedies depends on compliance with mandatory applicable laws of the project vehicle's jurisdiction.  To put it another way, the most straightforward test of whether the foreign party may have to adjust, or exit from its participation, comes down to whether it can fulfill project obligations while abiding by all applicable regulations that may apply to it.  Beyond such a litmus test, imagining or prognosticating about the myriad complexities of a possible Snapback scenario may be fruitless and contractually inefficient.

3. Avoiding the black-and-white trap: Of course, a foreign project participant can easily avail itself of the opportunity to stipulate that under any kind of scenario of project impracticability caused by sanctions, certain or envisioned, termination shall be the one and only prescribed remedy.  

But this is likely to disadvantage the foreign party in the context of negotiations over comprehensive project terms with its Iranian counterparty, and it may limit the scope of the project work itself and fail to allow for a more complex investment structure which cannot survive the threat of termination overnight due to a “Snapback” of one kind or another.

Aside from termination, and its precursor remedy, suspension, there should also be the possibility to contemplate a variety of concepts including assignment, agency and delegation, in order to benefit from the vagaries of sanctions regulations and their exemptions. In some cases, project obligations which would be in violation of sanctions for some foreign entities may not be so for others.  As has been shown by the agreements between foreign export credit agencies ("ECA"s) such as EKF, BPI and Invitalia, developments at an international level, especially where adequate sovereign support and sufficiently ringfenced banking facilities exist, are being contemplated to facilitate the kind of continuity required for the decades-long projects now underway in Iran.   In addition to these ECAs, other parties such as quasi-sovereign corporations, particularly those from less dollarized jurisdictions, can play a role as fallback transferees of the exiting foreigner’s project interest or shares under Snapback.  Moreover, it should always be noted that under even the most negative circumstances, the potential for a foreign party to obtain a waiver does exist and can be specified for the benefit of all parties.  

4. Saving face, weighing options: Although some foreign entities have a checkered past derived from cutting and running under the threat of or the actual imposition of sanctions against Iran, time has shown that many of the same foreign parties which were forced, or chose, to exit their project ventures are the first ones to have returned since the JCPOA. Such is the compelling nature of Iran as a destination for foreign capital.

Iranian parties to a project know both this history itself and its implications. Foreign participants may wish to keep close to the exits, but foreign companies that have been victimized by their own government’s whims regarding sanctions, and the slippage inherent in exiting and reentering, cannot be understated.  
For this reason, foreign project partners may choose to consider the solution of exit and entry “options” for themselves under adverse sanction scenarios, and thus it is important for all parties involved to understand what an “option” precisely means, and how to value such an option.

In financial speak, an option is defined as the right but not the obligation to sell (or buy) an asset in a fixed quantity at a fixed price on (or before) a fixed date in time.  In the case in question, the asset is the participatory interest of the foreign party in the Iranian project, and the date is that point in time at when the parties to a project agree that the foreign party must leave due to sanctions (or is able to re-enter due to easing of sanctions). 

However, it is not obvious immediately what the fixed price should be for foreign project interest at the time of exit or re-entry, and, most importantly, what may be overlooked is the tremendous value that such an option has.  In finance, the greater the underlying uncertainty about an asset, the more valuable any option on that uncertain asset is. Similarly, the longer the life of an option on an asset, the more valuable that option is.  In the context of long term investments, any option to exit (or re-enter) should be linked with a significant premium (that is, the worth of the option), and the contract parties should ensure that they successfully negotiate an appropriately fair value for the flexibility the options offer. As an illustrative example, the alternative to any exit put option for the foreign party is a fire-sale in the face of illiquid conditions for its share interest under the menace of reimposed international sanctions, or more problematic still, the inability to exit its share interest altogether, which an option is supposed to protect against.

Absent a foreign investor's legal immunity to the whims of the UN, OFAC, or other authorities, there is no perfect panacea for fool proofing long-term Iranian projects against the kind of uncertainty which the spectre of sanctions create.  But although this threat, to a certain extent, has forestalled the growth in Iran’s industry and economy despite the strengthening of Iran’s relationships with the international community, it is now apparent, moreso than ever before, that foreign parties can be expected to take an increasingly pragmatic approach in efforts to remain engaged with their Iranian projects for as long as possible.  They can effectively do so by allowing for the most flexible and broad classification of sanctions-related termination risks, by specifying a menu of contractually stipulated responses to reimposed sanctions (in conjunction with intelligent and pre-emptive project structuring) and by exchanging due consideration with the Iranian party for the invaluable options which allow them to remain confident that they can, if absolutely necessary, exit the project and someday re-enter, at a fair price.


Thus, it seems that the operative watchword for all foreign investors in Iran is continuity: continuity of the progression towards innovation, development and growth, and continuity of the participation of foreign interests in that process, bolstered by intelligent structuring solutions, both legal and financial, for dealing with the complicated reality of international economic sanctions.  With a measure of foresight, and a functional, flexible contractual framework, all participants in long-term, large-scale project joint ventures can move closer to the ideal of mitigating most, if not all, of the adverse consequences of sanctions regulations on investment decisions and risk management.

Mehrnoosh Aryanpour is the manager partner of the Tehran office of Gide Loyrette Nouel, the first and only branch of a foreign law firm in Iran.
 

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