President Barack Obama’s administration lifted U.S. trade sanctions that bar sales of consumer communications equipment and software to ordinary Iranians.
The policy shift was announced today by the U.S. State and Treasury departments, which administer the sanctions imposed on such consumer electronics since 1992. The Treasury Department is issuing what’s known as a general license, permitting sales to non-government consumers involving U.S. hardware such as mobile telephones and laptop computers, and software such as antivirus programs.
The change is intended to help Iranians communicate through social media, text messaging and mobile-phone videos in order to overcome some of the media and communications restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities. Due to U.S. sanctions, Iranians have turned to black-market-supplied and non-U.S. technology.
The action “aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information,” according to a Treasury Department statement.
The products covered by the general license issued today include mobile phones, satellite phones and broadband hardware, modems, network interface cards, routers, WiFi access points, laptop computers, tablets, disk drives, data storage devices, anti-virus and anti-tracking software, online store applications, virtual private networks, anti-censorship tools, and fee-based personal communications tools including voice, text, video, voice-over-IP telephony, and video chat.
“The U.S. is taking steps to ensure that, as Iran’s government cracks down on Internet access and SMS, sanctions will no longer block cellphones, software and hardware,” according to Jamal Abdi, a spokesman for the National Iranian American Council, a nonprofit group based inWashington. SMS is an abbreviation for short message service text messaging.
Internet social-media sites such as Facebook.com (FB), Twitter.com and YouTube.com have become vital for activists, as the Arab Spring uprisings demonstrated.
“Providing the democracy movement in Iran with access to the latest social-media organizing tools will strengthen their efforts to bring about positive change to a government that fears information it can’t control,” Representative Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who has sought such action, said in an e-mailed statement today.
The U.S. has supported attempts to boost democratic movements and stepped up efforts to stop regimes such as those in Iran and Syria from blocking social media through what Obama has called the “malign use of technology.”
In November, the administration imposed sanctions on Iranian officials — including the nation’s communications minister — and government agencies for blocking Internet access, mobile-phone lines and satellite-television channels to stifle free speech.
The Treasury named today additional individuals and entities who are “contributing to serious human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime, including through the use of communications technology to silence and intimidate the Iranian people.” The State Department issued visa restrictions on about 60 Iranian officials linked to human rights abuses.
Those designated include the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, the government entity charged with filtering the flow of information to the Iranian people, as well as Asghar Mir-Hejazi, the deputy chief of staff to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who “has used his influence behind the scenes to empower elements from Iran’s intelligence services in carrying out violent crackdowns against the Iranian people.”
The decision to lift some sanctions runs counter to recent actions in which the U.S. has generally tightened financial and trade restrictions on Iran as part of an international effort to persuade the regime in Tehran to give up activities that could lead to making nuclear weapons.
The National Iranian American Council has been urging the U.S. to aid ordinary Iranians and to assist the reform movement in the Persian Gulf country by ending the communications-equipment sanctions, making it easier and less costly to obtain such gear.
“The sanctions were felt most acutely four years ago, at the height of Iran’s green movement protests,” the group said in a statement. “The world was galvanized by cell-phone videos and reports of abuses coming from inside of Iran, and SMS and other communications tools were being used to help organize massive demonstrations. Yet all of those tools were under U.S. sanctions.”
The restrictions have blocked companies from selling laptops, mobile phones or modems to Iranians, which has fueled a black market for the goods. They also have blocked services such as satellite-based Internet access, website hosting and virtual private networks for Iranian citizens, according to the group.
Under the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992, the president may waive the requirement to impose certain sanctions if it is “essential to the national interest” of the U.S. This waiver authority has since been delegated to the under secretary of state for arms control and international security.
The administration previously eased some restrictions on mass-market software needed for Internet communications after noting that the sanctions were having an “unintended chilling effect” on the ability of companies such as Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Google Inc. (GOOG), based in Mountain View, California, to continue providing essential communications tools to ordinary Iranians.