Introduction to OFAC and Its Role: A Primer for Sanctions Lawyers

Operating under the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is instrumental in implementing and enforcing economic and trade sanctions across the United States. OFAC’s mission – to safeguard national security and advance foreign policy objectives – underscores its significance in today’s world of international commerce and global safety. OFAC Sanction Lawyers play a critical role in navigating these complexities, ensuring compliance with OFAC’s regulations and directives.

5 Key Responsibilities of OFAC:

  1. Administering and enforcing economic and trade sanctions.
  2. Designating SDNs.
  3. Freezing assets and blocking transactions of sanctioned entities.
  4. Providing licenses to permit activities that would otherwise be prohibited.
  5. Levying penalties for sanctions violations.

Understanding OFAC’s Purpose and Jurisdiction

The OFAC is primarily tasked with administering and enforcing economic and trade sanctions against countries and groups of individuals involved in activities deemed as threats to the U.S. national security, economy, or foreign policy. These activities may include international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the United States.

List of Notable OFAC Sanctions Programs:

  1. Narcotics trafficking sanctions.
  2. Terrorism sanctions.
  3. Weapons of mass destruction proliferation sanctions.
  4. Sanctions targeting significant corruption and serious human rights abuse.

OFAC’s sanctions are not only country-specific but can also target individuals, entities, or organizations irrespective of their geographical location. These targeted sanctions are known as “Specially Designated Nationals” or SDNs, and U.S. individuals and entities are prohibited from dealing with them.

OFAC has wide-ranging jurisdiction, applying its sanctions programs to all U.S. persons, which includes all U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens regardless of their location, all persons and entities within the United States, and all U.S. incorporated entities and their foreign branches.

The agency’s authority, including the OFAC release of blocked funds, is far-reaching and comprehensive. OFAC can freeze assets, obstruct transactions, and impose significant penalties on individuals or entities that contravene its sanction programs. The jurisdiction of OFAC is formidable, encompassing any transaction involving a U.S. nexus. This could even include transactions conducted in U.S. dollars that traverse through U.S. banking systems.

Brief History of OFAC

Understanding the historical context of OFAC can provide crucial insights into its current operations and mandates. OFAC’s roots trace back to the time of World War II when it was created as part of the Office of the Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Originally known as the Office of Foreign Funds Control (OFFC), its early mission was to prevent Nazi Germany from accessing the U.S.’ foreign financial accounts during the war. After the war ended, OFFC renamed the Office of International Finance before eventually being rebranded as OFAC.

Period Milestones in OFAC’s History
World War II Establishment as OFFC
Early 1960s Sanctions against Cuba
1979 Iran embargo
Post-9/11 Counter-terrorism sanctions


Throughout the years, OFAC has adeptly adjusted and broadened its sanctions programs to align with shifts in the geopolitical landscape. It’s vital for individuals and organizations seeking OFAC representation to understand the prominent sanctions programs, including those aimed at Cuba during the early 1960s, the Iran embargo in 1979, and more recent programs targeting terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction after the 9/11 events.

OFAC plays a critical role in international sanctions law. Its purpose, jurisdiction, and history demonstrate the profound implications of OFAC sanctions on global business transactions and national security. As sanctions lawyers, understanding the intricacies of OFAC is indispensable in providing competent and effective legal counsel.

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