As Iran erupted with protests this past weekend, the Iranian government responded with a violent clamp down against demonstrators and the severing of nearly all Internet connections between Iran and the rest of the world. In the U.S., the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued statements of solidarity – despite the fact that many of the economic woes Iranians are protesting have been due to U.S. sanctions. However, if Pompeo and co are actually serious about standing for the rights and aspirations of the Iranian people, they can take real action by exempting communications tools from sanctions — a step which, until now, the administration has completely and perhaps deliberately ignored amidst a fervor to impose “maximum pressure.”
In 2009 the world watched as Iran erupted in massive protests following the contested election that handed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the presidency for four more years. But as U.S. and world leaders issued statements of solidarity and lamented the death of Iranian protesters like Neda Agha Soltan, who was gunned down by security forces in the streets in a moment captured in video that quickly went viral, a realization dawned: U.S. sanctions actually made the filming and transmission of the Neda video illegal. The cellphone it was recorded on, the computer it was transferred onto, the modem and internet service that enabled its upload—all were in circumvention of the U.S. economic embargo on Iran. The State Department even had to intervene to prevent Facebook and Twitter from shutting off services in the midst of protests, as the then-young social media giants realized that sanctions should have barred them from making their platforms available to the people of Iran.
The episode set off a process to fix the outdated and harmful U.S. sanctions against communications technology in Iran. It included legislative efforts, an initial statement of favorable licensing policy by the Obama administration and eventually a “General License” to exempt communications hardware, software, and services from the sanctions. The license was later updated and expanded in 2014 and, thankfully, the policy is still in place today.
Calls to address the backsliding of the U.S. commitment to Internet freedom for Iranians fell on deaf ears in the Trump Administration as, under maximum pressure, anything perceived as easing sanctions was a nonstarter.
Unfortunately, there are still many vagaries in the policy. And, as the Trump Administration entered office and signaled it would take a new hard line on Iran sanctions, companies who had been comfortable erring on the side of free expression and allowing Iranians to access their products suddenly became risk-averse. The advent of the “maximum pressure” sanctions led company after company to begin blocking Iranians from utilizing their services for fears of sanctions violations. Beginning in 2018, Apple closed off the App Store to Iranian developers and Google soon followed suit. Platforms like Slack, GitHub, and imo began denying Iranians from accessing from its services. And, perhaps most damaging, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud – which accounts for a majority of the world’s web traffic – decided to ban Iranians from using its servers because of U.S. sanctions.
Calls to address the backsliding of the U.S. commitment to Internet freedom for Iranians fell on deaf ears in the Trump Administration as, under maximum pressure, anything perceived as easing sanctions was a nonstarter. The State Department’s Iran “envoy” Brian Hook even released a misleading video trumpeting the Obama era license exempting communications tools from sanctions even as that exemption was completely crumbling under Hook’s watch.
This past weekend, we saw the full effect of this inaction. In a scale unprecedented for Iran, the government cut off Internet and effectively severed communications from inside Iran to the outside world. While authorities have frequently throttled connection speeds to tamp down expected unrest such as during elections, and have even cut off the Internet for periods of less than an hour, the nearly full-scale cut-off for multiple days is unprecedented. In the past, cutting off the Internet meant that all online communications would be hampered for Iran – including critical communications for the economy and government to function. But since 2009, Iran has been building its own internal Internet and – thanks to services kicking Iranian users off of their platforms for fear of sanctions – Iranian developers have had no choice but to host their services on that Iranian government intranet. As a result, Iranian authorities have far more control of – and greater ability to monitor and interfere with – Internet communications and services. And if the Internet needs to be severed as a means to cover up what is happening inside the country – it is now possible to do so without cutting off the internal government-run intranet.
For Iranian Americans, standing in solidarity with Iranians who seek to hold their own government to account must mean holding our government to account…
The easy solution that the U.S. can take – and should have taken years ago – is to significantly expand General License D-1 to ensure that the U.S. is not helping the Iranian government block Iranians from outside communications. That license has not been updated for more than five years and, as a result, it arguably fails to cover nearly universally used and incredibly important tools. If ever there was an example of how repressive forces inside Iran seek to isolate the Iranian people – and benefit from U.S. sanctions that do precisely that – we are now seeing it. For Iranian Americans, standing in solidarity with Iranians who seek to hold their own government to account must mean holding our government to account – beginning with demanding they lift Internet restrictions and expand General License D-1 so Iranians can communicate freely.