ROSNEFT HIRES ZAIWALLA
Russian oil giant OAO Rosneft is devising a legal strategy to fight Western sanctions in European courts, according to people familiar with the strategy—a tactic modeled on the so-far successful legal campaign waged by Iran's Bank Mellat.
As a starting point, Rosneft has hired London-based Zaiwalla & Co., according to these people. The firm successfully represented Mellat, one of Iran's largest banks, in two big European court cases last year.
The court wins didn't remove many real-world hurdles for Mellat. But they provided the bank—and by extension, Tehran—with public-relations victories in the face of mounting global isolation.
The U.S. and the European Union have slapped a series of sanctions on Iran, Iranian individuals and Iranian companies, alleging they aided Tehran's efforts to build nuclear-weapons capabilities, among other things. Tehran has long maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
Russian firms, including Rosneft, are now also feeling the effects of tightening Western sanctions aimed at softening President Vladimir Putin 's stance on Ukraine.
Bank Mellat won lawsuits at Britain's Supreme Court, the final court of appeals in the U.K. for civil cases, and at the Luxembourg-based EU General Court, which hears legal actions brought against EU institutions. Judges in both courts agreed with Bank Mellat that there wasn't sufficient evidence to support the EU's allegations that the bank helped Iran's nuclear program.
The EU has appealed the EU General Court's ruling. The British government can't appeal the U.K. Supreme Court ruling. But because Britain is part of the EU, London can maintain sanctions against Mellat until the EU appeals process is exhausted.
While the legal victories haven't yet made life easier for Mellat outside of Iran, it has complicated European efforts to fully enforce sanctions against Iran. It also has opened up the possibility of steep financial claims.
International companies wanting to do business with Mellat now have a strong legal backing to do so, though there is no indication any Western firms are yet willing to re-engage with the bank. And in February, Bank Mellat filed a $4 billion claim against the British government at London's High Court, after the U.K. Supreme Court decision in favor of Mellat. The U.K. government has denied its sanctions caused significant pecuniary loss to Mellat.
In both of these cases, Mellat used Zaiwalla & Co. The firm will now help Rosneft argue that it, just like Mellat, has been inappropriately targeted by Western sanctions, according to people familiar with the strategy.
Zaiwalla is led by Indian-born lawyer Sarosh Zaiwalla, who set up shop in the City of London, the city's financial district, in 1982. Mr. Zaiwalla specializes in advising sanctioned countries in international disputes with the West. At one point, he also worked on devising legal strategies for the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein, when it was subject to a partial, U.S.-led, no-fly zone.
Rosneft's press office couldn't immediately be reached for comment and didn't return an emailed request for comment.
Any case brought by Rosneft could be significantly more difficult to win than those by Bank Mellat. Mellat was specifically targeted by EU sanctions, raising the bar for proving the bank aided Tehran's alleged weapons-building efforts.
In Rosneft's case, the company is among several that fall into a broad category of EU sanctions aimed at oil-sector firms with more than 50% government ownership. In the past, European courts have ruled these types of broader sanctions are, in essence, political decisions EU member states have the right to take.
U.S. sanctions have also specifically targeted Rosneft and Rosneft's chief executive, Igor Sechin. The EU and U.S. sanctions ban long-term debt funding to Rosneft, along with the export of certain technologies to Russia, including those used for nonconventional oil drilling. The measures already are impeding some of the oil company's deal making and operational plans.
Morgan Stanley warned last week that its planned sale of certain oil-trading and storage businesses to Rosneft may fall apart because of a delay in getting U.S. clearance for the transaction.
Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC also have suspended joint-exploration efforts with Rosneft because of EU and U.S. bans on exporting certain oil equipment to Russia.
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