Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, has admitted bribing an Iranian official in exchange for lucrative oil and gas rights in Iran. The admission came under the terms of an agreement with the US Justice Department.

The so-called deferred prosecution agreement, in which the company escaped prosecution on two criminal charges because of its co-operation with US authorities, stems from payments the group made in 2002 to an Iranian official that were disguised as fees for a “consulting contract” with an intermediary, Horton Investment, based in Turks and Caicos islands.

Two bribes totalling $5m (€4m, £2.7m) were made in exchange for a development contract for the South Pars oil field that was expected to yield millions of dollars in profit.

Under the terms of the agreement with the DoJ and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Statoil agreed to pay a $21m penalty – comprising a $10.5m fine and $10.5m disgorgement of profits – and will appoint an independent compliance consultant to periodically vet its performance over the term of the three year agreement with prosecutors.

Jannik Lindbaek, Statoil chairman, said the agreement resolved the “Horton matter”, which occurred under the company’s previous management, and was in the best interest of Statoil. “You can never be pleased about the settlement amount but, of course, it is better to have a settlement than other alternatives, such as a long court case,” said Helge Lund, Statoil chief executive.

The US pursuit of the case was more aggressive than that of Norway which, in 2004, imposed a $3m fine on the company without compelling the group to admit the bribery charges.

The move is the latest example of the DoJ’s willingness to pursue aggressively violations by non-US companies of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which prohibits pay-offs to foreign officials.

“Although Statoil is a foreign issuer, the FCPA applies to foreign and domestic public companies alike, where the company’s stock trades on American exchanges,” said Alice Fisher, the assistant attorney general.

Experts say the case proves companies cannot expect earlier investigations to have an impact on the DoJ’s willingness to pursue a case – although in this matter, the SEC did agree to credit Statoil for the $3m it had already paid in fines.

The severity of the penalty underscores that US officials take a particularly harsh view of issues concerning Iran, from pressuring European banks to cut ties with Iran to cases about export controls, said Judith Lee, an attorney at Gibson Dunn.

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