Report

How Washington Helps Tehran Control the Internet

Meant to hurt the regime, U.S. sanctions actually make it easier for the mullahs to crack down on dissent online.

An Iranian woman raises her fist amid tear gas smoke during a protest at the University of Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iranian woman raises her fist amid tear gas smoke during a protest at the University of Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

When thousands of Iranians streamed onto the country’s streets in the last week to protest government corruption and the dilapidated economy, authorities in Tehran reverted to a well-known playbook.

On Sunday, the government shut down Telegram, a messaging platform used by more than 40 million Iranians. Instagram and other social media soon followed.

The mullahs’ intentions were clear: to block access to digital platforms used by protesters to spread information about the uprising. But the government’s crackdown found support from a surprising source — the American sanctions regime.

Meant to isolate and punish the Iranian government for its bad behavior, the sanctions, which have been in place since the Bill Clinton administration and have been repeatedly strengthened in recent years, have proved useful in the past; experts credit them with helping push Iran to accept the 2015 nuclear deal. In exchange for Iran agreeing to limit its nuclear weapons program, the United States lifted many of the measures in 2016. But significant U.S. sanctions remain in place, some of which have blocked Iranian access to U.S. technology companies and their products.

The irony is that the government wasn’t the only segment of Iranian society hurt by these measures; so were Iranian civic organizations that had relied on them to help their push for a more open society. According to Iranian technology activists, more than 100 digital services have been affected.

The list includes basic Adobe software, useful, for example, in the creation of PDF documents advertising protest locations; Android development software, which Iranian programmers could use to create applications to circumvent domestic internet controls; collaboration software from Atlassian, another development tool; Google products such as Google App Engine and Google Cloud; and anti-virus programs.

“We keep telling the American government: These sanctions are harming people,” says Amir Rashidi, an internet security researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Rashidi and a group of technology activists are pressuring the U.S. government to issue what’s known as a general license to supply communications technology products to Iran without fear of getting slapped with fines for violating sanctions.

So far, however, such entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. On Thursday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Peek told the BBC that he is encouraging American companies to ensure the free flow of information in Iran, but there is little indication that the Donald Trump administration plans to ease sanctions or provide new carve-outs.

Instead, Washington is likely to quickly impose additional sanctions. On Thursday, the Treasury Department slapped Tehran with new strictures targeting its ballistic missile industry. Peek told the BBC that future sanctions may target Iranian officials involved in throttling the internet.

Sanctions experts at the Treasury Department have long studied the issue of how to better provide communications technology to Iran and have attempted to craft exceptions that would allow firms such as Google and Apple to enter the Iranian market. But these efforts have seen mixed success at best.

In 2013 and 2014, the Barack Obama administration issued a pair of general licenses meant to encourage the export of communications technology to Iran and prevent U.S. sanctions from inadvertently helping Iran’s rulers stifle free expression.

Google and Apple soon made their app stores available to Iranian consumers, but American companies did not rush to make their products available there, in large part due to problems processing Iranian payments. According to Peter Harrell, who helped write the general licenses as a Treasury official, U.S. financial restrictions on Iranian banks make it difficult for American firms to offer anything besides free services in Iran. “None of them have really figured out how to make money,” says Harrell, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Further complicating matters is the fact that to avoid violating the sanctions regime, U.S. companies have to make sure that their services aren’t being used by the Iranian government, setting up what Harrell describes as yet another major compliance problem.

In the meantime, Tehran remains free to throttle those digital services that do exist in the country, such as Facebook and Twitter. Since protesters took to the streets last week, the government has stepped up such actions.

“Day by day, it’s getting worse and worse,” Rashidi says.

Telegram, the encrypted messaging application, has emerged as the central battleground in the current battle. The application employs end-to-end encryption, which promises a measure of privacy from government spies, and has a popular channel feature that allows large numbers of users to sign up to receive news and other information.

By blocking the service, Tehran has effectively cut off access to the country’s most popular tool for disseminating information, both inside and outside the country.

In theory, Iranian internet users could switch to Signal, another encrypted messaging application that offers a higher level of security than Telegram, to bypass government controls. But Signal is mostly unavailable in Iran — technology activists report mixed service — because Google has blocked Iranians from using a service called Google App Engine.

Signal relies on Google App Engine to hide its online traffic to countries attempting to block the app. To block it, authoritarian regimes must therefore block all of Google, a highly unattractive option. But Tehran doesn’t face this problem; Google has solved it for the regime, by blocking the service itself out of fear of violating American sanctions.

Activists have pushed Google and other tech firms to adopt a less conservative interpretation of the U.S. sanctions regime but say they have run into intense opposition from lawyers at the companies.

Fereidoon Bashar, the co-director of the Canadian digital rights group ASL19, says companies are generally sympathetic to the cause of Iranian internet freedom, but “the conversation comes to a halt when you get to the lawyers,” who take a more conservative approach to sanctions compliance.

But an even bigger part of the problem is politics. “No one wants to be seen as lifting sanctions and being soft on Iran,” says Morad Ghorban, the director of government affairs and policy at the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. 

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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