U.S. Sanctions Abet Iranian Internet Censorship
If the United States wants to stand behind the next #IranProtests, it should liberalize rules that impede access to cutting-edge tools against repression.
President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement if Tehran does not agree to renegotiate its terms this spring. But rather than tear up the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration should work to support the next #IranProtests — which would be far more likely to bring change to Tehran than would a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
Over the past several weeks, Iranian repression and internet censorship have stifled the widespread protests that, beginning late last month, shook Iranian politics and drew global support. Rapidly escalating events caught many in Washington off-guard and struggling to find opportunities to assist the protesters — an all too common pattern when it comes to Iran. But the underlying tensions that drew the protestors into the streets — low wages, unemployment, and government corruption — remain. Now is the time for the Trump administration to ensure that the United States will be prepared when Iranians come back out to demand change.
Following the standard foreign policy playbook, the Trump White House issued forceful public statements supporting the protesters and sanctioned Iranian officials involved in political repression, both of which were welcome moves. But a more powerful form of support for the Iranian public would be to liberalize the U.S. sanctions rules that continue to impede Iranians’ access to cutting-edge apps and other technology — tools that would enable the protesters to more effectively defy the Iranian government’s repression and censorship.
Iranians’ access to secure messaging apps and other technology was critical to the protests. They were coordinated largely on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app based in Europe and Dubai. After the Iranian government tried to block access to Telegram, millions of Iranians turned to popular online censorship circumvention tools, such as Toronto-based Psiphon, which reported that its daily users in Iran went from some 3 million to 15 million as the protests spread.
It is no coincidence that Telegram, Psiphon, and many other apps and online tools popular in Iran are not made in the United States: Sanctions continue to prohibit U.S. companies from making many of the world’s most popular technologies available in Iran. Far too often those striving to improve internet connectivity in Iran find themselves blocked by U.S. regulations. The Trump administration should end these restrictions, which hurt the millions of ordinary Iranians that the United States hopes will one day lead reform efforts inside Iran.
There has been bipartisan support for internet access in Iran over the past decade. In his first speech to the United Nations, Trump condemned the Iranian government’s restrictions on internet access and satellite television. During the protests, the State Department called on Iran to open up internet access and, after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iranians should be able to access social media sites, a senior State Department official urged Tehran to follow his lead.
Since 2013 the U.S. government has issued licenses that allow U.S. companies to make available certain kinds of personal communications technology in Iran. For example, licenses allow U.S. companies to provide inside Iran certain personal communications apps and devices. This allows companies to provide antivirus software and other secure messaging tools that might limit the ability of the Iranian government to spy on its own people.
However, these existing licenses contain gaps that limit their utility for American companies seeking to open up to Iranian users. For example, an important component of the popular U.S. messaging app Signal appears to be blocked because it depends on a Google product, Google App Engine, which is not available due to sanctions concerns. Similarly, last August Apple removed hundreds of Iranian-developed apps from its app store, apparently after determining that the existing licenses did not cover their distribution of Iranian-developed apps. U.S. licensing policies should bolster internet connectivity, foster creative strategies to support freedom of expression, and empower Iranian entrepreneurs, rather than impose hurdles that only benefit the regime.
Expanded licenses are only part of the answer. The situation also requires better cooperation between the U.S. government and tech companies grappling with hard sanctions questions. Many American companies are wary of making products available in Iran, because even if existing licenses legally allow firms to provide certain products there, they fear repercussions if the wrong people find a way to use them. Sanctions regulators generally expect American banks and companies not to do business with the Iranian government or with specifically sanctioned individuals in Iran. But U.S. tech companies that offer free or low-cost apps have no practical way of reliably identifying individual users to screen out those who are prohibited.
As a result, many U.S. companies find it easier to block all users in Iran rather than risking fines and other costly punishments. U.S. authorities need to give the tech sector clear, practical guidance on the level of due diligence tech companies should take in Iran, and refrain from prosecuting companies if a few sanctioned actors manage to use their products despite a company taking appropriate due diligence steps.
Finally, and particularly given the economic demands that drove many of the protesters, the Trump administration should expand the licenses to let U.S. tech companies train and do other work with Iranian tech entrepreneurs and small businesses — work that the existing licenses do not allow. Many of Iran’s young people are tech-savvy and would welcome the opportunity for greater connections with the U.S. tech sector.
Far too often brief windows of protest and political change in Iran capture international attention, only to fade after the Iranian government cracks down. Enabling U.S. tech companies to help protect internet access would send a powerful message that the Trump administration stands firmly with the Iranian people and against the Iranian regime. More broadly, pursuing aggressive efforts to ensure that U.S. sanctions don’t impede access to the internet, apps, and other digital tools in Iran could create a model for ensuring that U.S. government sanctions against oppressive regimes elsewhere do not interfere with people’s ability to communicate online. The State Department and Treasury should promote open access and secure communications worldwide as part of their global commitment to defending the open internet.
Peter E. Harrell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. From 2012 to 2014, he served as the deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.