Just four months ago, the State Department announced it was taking the rare step of imposing sanctions on an Israeli firm, alleging that it had helped provide an oil tanker to Iran. The allegation, which was denied by the two Israeli billionaires who owned the company, caused an uproar in Israel, and the firm has said its financial partners became wary of engaging in further business.
On Tuesday, the State Department said in a brief notice that it was clarifying the target of the sanctions, effectively clearing the brothers and Ofer Holdings Group of direct responsibility for the sale.
[This is an updated version of a story posted before Tuesday’s State Department briefing.]
The Ofer firm, a conglomerate with interests in shipping, banking and media, said in a statement that the State Department’s action “clears our name.” Separately, the family issued a statement saying it was “relieved that the U.S. State Department had made this important clarification.”
In May, in announcing the sanctions, the State Department had said Ofer was among the entities that “failed to exercise due diligence and did not heed publicly available and easily obtainable information” to recognize that the tanker was being sold to an Iranian front company.
Ofer officials, however, argued that they had no way of knowing and that they had exercised due diligence.
Other firms that are indirectly owned by Ofer, including a Singapore-based management company, still face sanctions. Ofer said, however, that those are not wholly owned subsidiaries, and that no Israeli entity is still sanctioned under the Iran Sanctions Act.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted the clarification did not change the intention of the original sanctions and that three entities under Ofer are sanctioned. She said Tuesday that there had been some “confusion,” and that the entire conglomerate was never supposed to be the target.
(The sanctioning documents originally targeted “Ofer Brothers Group,” a name that apparently does not exist. The documents “have now been rewritten so that it is absolutely crystal clear that the subjects of the sanctions are a couple of entities of Ofer Brothers,” Nuland said. )
The sanctions meant Ofer could not secure financing from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, obtain loans over $10 million from U.S. financial institutions or receive American export licenses.
The Iran Sanctions Act, part of the effort to squeeze Iran financially to force it to give up its nuclear ambitions, imposes penalties on firms doing business with Iran, though in practice, it traditionally has only been enforced against U.S. companies.