But with more and more of life taking place online, and the ambiguity of the distinction between how people communicate personally and in business, US policy may ultimately contribute to Tehran’s mounting pressure to censor and monitor, analysts say.
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US sanctions are so far-reaching that they largely control what Internet services, software and hardware Iranians can import or use. However, many companies simply avoid working with Iranians instead of navigating the quagmire of compliance regulations.
That means Iranians’ access to technology is limited at a time when Iran’s harsh government is trying to exert even more control over the internet there. According to some analysts, US policymakers have not kept up.
“These sanctions have forced the Iranian technology community to move its communication platforms and cloud services to Iran, making it easier for authorities to monitor and shut down the internet in times of turmoil,” said Holly Dagres, senior fellow at the Atlantic. Council, a Washington thank you and author of a report released Thursday documenting social media trends in Iran.
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About three-quarters of Iranians over the age of 18, out of a population of 84 million, use social media and messaging apps, according to a 2021 poll by Iran’s Student Polling Agency. But sanctions can restrict access to some online services — and often most affect those who don’t have the financial means to afford VPNs and other workarounds, Dagres said.
For example, it is impossible to make purchases in the online Apple store with an Iranian IP address. Startups have sprung up selling Apple gift cards to Iranians who can afford them, says Mahsa Alimardani of Article 19, a London-based freedom of speech group. Slack, a mainstay of communication in many communities, is still unavailable, Alimardani said, and Iranians cannot create accounts on Amazon Web Services or use Google Cloud Platform, two popular cloud hosting services.
What works one day may not work the next, increasing day-to-day insecurities. With the country’s economy in shambles, Iranians seeking information or educational opportunities in web-based sectors such as gaming or coding could be placed at a disadvantage.
For months, Iranians have been protesting water shortages in person and online. Security forces have responded to the demonstrations with internet restrictions and violence, underscoring the challenges Iranians face in communicating with each other and the outside world.
Some had hoped the Biden administration would relax or clarify tech-related sanctions — some of which have been in place for decades — as a goodwill gesture to Iran after four years of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, Ali said. Vaez, the director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Instead, President Biden prioritized negotiations for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would relieve Iranians from nuclear sanctions, leaving many other blacklists in place.
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US sanctions prohibit US citizens and companies from doing business with Iran; similarly prohibited are non-US citizens and companies operating in or with the United States. The Office of Foreign Assets Control of the United States Department of the Treasury, or OFAC, is charged with enforcing sanctions and licensing exemptions, in coordination with other branches of the United States government.
The sanctions program aims to “ensure that the people of Iran reach the broadest possible information resources while guarding against tools, including software and hardware, that could be used by the Iranian government to attack or otherwise harm the people of Iran.” censor. said John E. Smith, who led the OFAC for 11 years, until 2018.
In 2009, after Iranian security forces forcibly suppressed mass pro-democracy demonstrations organized in part online, US policymakers began reflecting on how US sanctions were hindering Iranians’ access to internet technology, Dagres said.
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During the Obama administration, OFAC announced new guidelines and licenses — known as General License D and General License D-1 — that would allow companies to export more online services, software, browsers and other Internet tools to Iran. These changes were made to include social media giants Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, which many blacklisted Iranian leaders use.
In the years since, however, Iran has made strides in developing its own national internet network, an alternative to the world wide web that it can more easily censor and shut down.
“US sanctions are not the reason for internet censorship in Iran – that responsibility rests with the Islamic Republic,” Dagres said.
Still, Iranian activists and digital rights groups have called for further changes and clarifications as “something the United States can do to make a positive impact,” Alimardani said. New technologies, such as cloud-sharing services, have taken off, but their legal status remains unclear, Dagres said.
Companies outside Iran are then often left to interpret what could be a sanctions violation or what could be exempted.
“The problem arises when the sanctions architecture simply becomes too complex for companies to easily understand what is allowed,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the chief executive of the London-based Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, a think tank.
For example, some international tech companies rely on US-based servers or the US banking system for their operations, meaning their operations are under Washington’s jurisdiction. Last year, OFAC fined a Swiss IT company $7.8 million after it used US-based servers to run part of a lost luggage program that it blacklisted. Iranian airlines.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the sanctions issue, said in an email that the Treasury allows the export of certain services, software and hardware incidents to personal communications to Iran, too. through Iran General License D-1” and other regulations as “part of our commitment to ensure that the Iranian people have access to the tools of personal communication.”
A US technology company took up the challenge in 2019 and applied for a general OFAC license to operate in Iran. GitHub, a web-based software development platform and repository, finally received it two years later.
“We truly believe that software development, software collaboration, promotes the free flow of information and communication,” said Lynn Hashimoto, Head of Product and Regulatory Legal at GitHub, of the company’s decision. The permit application process “was labor and labor intensive.”
OFAC declined to comment on whether other companies have filed for similar exemptions.
“OFAC is considering applications for the provision of communications tools to Iran that may fall outside the general license on a case-by-case basis, although we are not commenting on specific licenses,” the OFAC spokesperson said.
But setting a precedent, GitHub said it has since applied for OFAC licenses to also operate in US-sanctioned Syria and Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia.