“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating.”
– Kofi Annan
Technology and innovation are celebrated in the United States like no other country in the world. We foster a culture of entrepreneurship and openness that encourages people to dream big, take risks and build amazing companies that help sustain and vitalize our economy. We are a nation that embraces progress to better the human condition. However, sanctions against Iran that prevent ordinary Iranians from accessing communication tools are antithetical to this spirit and play directly into the hands of an oppressive Iranian regime that views technology and the flow of information as an existential threat.
With the sham Iranian presidential elections just weeks away and lessons learned from the 2009 Green Movement protests as well as Arab Spring uprisings at the forefront of our minds, the Iranian regime is intent on further restricting and choking off any and all communication channels that threaten its hold on power. According to a recent report by opposition website Kaleme, Internet speeds have increasingly slowed as the June elections approach and popular Google services, including Gmail and Google Plus, have been restricted over the past few weeks. In a further attempt to strangle the free flow of
information, the regime has blocked access to “illegal” virtual private networks (VPNs), which are widely used by the people to circumvent government filtering. These actions clearly show that those in power in Iran are keenly aware of the disrupting potential of such services as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and so on.
Unfortunately, biting U.S. communication sanctions actually bolster the repressive Iranian regime’s goal of further isolating its population. Many of the goods and services, which in 2009 helped the Green Movement organize and document the regimes crackdown, have been placed under sanction. With that, we have lost a space for the greater good, an important intelligence resource, and a real-time pulse on the true sentiments of the people, which ultimately translates into increased opacity. What can be seen as overreaching sanctions include bans on cell phones, laptops, commercial software and encryption tools like VPNs, services including satellite internet access and web hosting, and financial transactions that facilitate the transfer of these goods and services. To put in perspective the scope and degree of the current U.S. communication sanctions, even online dating services like Match.com are barred from permitting Iranians in Iran from registering on their site. Perhaps it is safe to assume that dating is not a national security risk.
With the existing sanctions in place, Iranians aspiring for democratic reform may very well look at us and think, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” Freedom of information and the technological tools that facilitate exchange are pillars of open and prosperous societies; thus it begs the questions: Are such monolithic sanctions furthering our strategic and economic interests? Does the current incarnation of our policies support the Iranian people who seek greater freedoms and inclusion in the larger world community? It seems that we have taken one of our greatest strengths and tied it firmly behind our backs.
With the Iranian presidential elections only a few weeks away and an increasingly heavy handed Iranian regime bent on preventing its people from meaningfully participating in the political process, organizing, peacefully protesting, accessing information and sharing freely with the rest of world, it is paramount that we urge and support President Obama to take action and ease sanctions on benign communication tools and technologies. Such inexact sanctions not only undermine the democratic aspirations of many Iranians; in fact, they run counter to the very spirit of our nation—a nation that finds resource, resolve and strength in liberty that we, at our best, aspire to complete with enduring fidelity.