Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC): What It Is, How It Works, and Real-World Examples


The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is a crucial department within the U.S. Treasury responsible for enforcing economic and trade sanctions against nations and groups posing threats to national security and the economy. This article delves into the workings of OFAC, its origins, impact, and the key takeaways regarding its sanctions.

What is the office of foreign assets control (OFAC)?

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is an integral part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, charged with the enforcement of economic and trade sanctions imposed by the United States against foreign countries and groups of individuals. These sanctions are imposed in response to various acts, including foreign aggression, terrorist activities, and narcotics sales.

OFAC has a rich history, dating back to 1950 when it was established due to China’s entry into the Korean War. President Harry Truman declared the event a national emergency and froze all Chinese and Korean assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Before OFAC, there was the Office of Foreign Funds Control (FFC), which was created in 1940 in response to the Nazi invasion of Norway.

How OFAC works

OFAC enforces sanctions that are imposed by the U.S. government based on its foreign policy and national security objectives. These policies primarily target foreign nations, terrorists, and narcotics traffickers who pose threats to the national security or economy of the United States, including entities that stockpile weapons of mass destruction.

Who authorizes OFAC?

The actions of this agency are usually authorized by Congressional legislation. However, the President of the United States can use national emergency powers to perform certain actions, such as freezing foreign assets under U.S. jurisdiction. In addition, OFAC imposes sanctions based on mandates by the United Nations, often in cooperation with allied nations. These sanctions are used to influence nations or groups to change behavior seen as detrimental to the international community.

The impact of sanctions

OFAC’s sanctions are intended to disrupt the economies and everyday lives of nations or groups that violate international norms. They serve as a means of pressuring a country to conform to acceptable standards of behavior short of armed conflict. For instance, if a terrorist group funds its activities through the sale of commodities on the international market, sanctions may be introduced to disrupt this revenue source, weakening their ability to recruit and acquire weapons.

Nations under sanctions

If a belligerent country invades a neighboring country, trade and other assets could be frozen. OFAC takes charge of enforcing these sanctions, compelling the belligerent country to halt its actions or engage in negotiations to end the conflict. OFAC has administered sanctions on countries such as Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Russia, and it has taken action against individuals involved in criminal activities, like drug trafficking.

Sanctions on Russia

One of the most well-known instances of OFAC sanctions is against Russia. These sanctions were initially ordered in response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014. In early 2022, additional sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. This included blocking Russian state-owned financial institutions like Vnesheconombank and Promsvyazbank. These sanctions were later expanded to include major banks like Sberbank and VTB Bank, significantly impacting Russia’s access to the U.S. financial system.

Sanctions have also targeted Russian elites and their families. Export controls have been established to prevent Russia from importing technological goods, and U.S. companies and individuals are prohibited from buying Russian sovereign debt in the secondary market.

For more information on the latest OFAC sanctions, refer to the White House’s “Fact Sheet: Joined by Allies and Partners, the United States Imposes Devastating Costs on Russia.”


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.

  • Effective enforcement of economic and trade sanctions.
  • Contributes to safeguarding national security.
  • Provides a powerful tool to influence nations and groups.
  • Can lead to unintended economic hardships in targeted countries.
  • May strain diplomatic relations with affected nations.
  • Complexity in determining the effectiveness and potential blowback.

Frequently asked questions

What is the primary goal of OFAC sanctions?

The primary goal of OFAC sanctions is to safeguard U.S. national security and the economy by targeting nations, terrorists, and narcotics traffickers who pose threats.

How are OFAC sanctions authorized?

OFAC sanctions are usually authorized through Congressional legislation, but the President can employ national emergency powers in certain cases.

Can OFAC sanctions impact everyday life in sanctioned countries?

Yes, OFAC sanctions are designed to disrupt the economy and everyday life of nations that violate international norms, pressuring them to change their behavior.

What are the consequences of OFAC sanctions on Russian financial institutions?

OFAC sanctions on Russian financial institutions have blocked their access to the U.S. financial system and impacted their operations significantly.

Key takeaways

  • OFAC enforces U.S. trade and economic sanctions imposed on foreign nations or groups.
  • Sanctions may be approved by Congress or initiated by emergency powers held by the President.
  • Sanctions are intended to disrupt activities detrimental to the U.S. and its allies and force an end to them.
View Article Sources
  1. OFAC Sanctioned Countries – Princeton University
  2. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) – University of South Carolina
  3. Office of Foreign Assets Control: Home – Office of Foreign Assets Control
  4. Can F1 Students Invest In Stocks? – SuperMoney