By Ryan Costello, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ryan Costello is a policy fellow at the National Iranian American Council. The views expressed are his own.
Sweeping sanctions on Iran appear to have claimed their latest victim: the Samsung App store. Samsung has reportedly decided to block access to its App store in Iran from May 22. If true [Editor’s note: Samsung declined to comment to CNN], it is the latest sign that Western sanctions are restricting technology from the Iranian people, damaging the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.
In 2009, Iranians protesting a stolen presidential election utilized the internet, cell phones and social media to organize, skirt government censorship and capture their government’s incorrigible human rights abuses. The Iranian regime found that authoritarian repression was not so easily hidden in a highly connected, digital world. The murder of Neda Agha-Soltan by a government militia, captured on video with a cellphone, helped to galvanize domestic and international opposition to Iran’s repression. However, weeks ahead of the first Iranian presidential election since 2009, U.S. and European sanctions are blocking Iranians from the same technology that helped the Green Movement organize for human rights and democracy. Such counterproductive policies only help the regime’s hardliners to repress and censor the Iranian people, stifling democratic change.
Last week, Samsung reportedly notified its Iranian users that they would be restricted from the “Samsung Apps” online store due to “legal barriers” imposed by sanctions. One wonders why sanctions on Iran, imposed due to concerns over possible weapons dimensions to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, would prevent average Iranians from being able to download a New York Times app or Angry Birds game. But the web of sanctions on Iran has become so blind and indiscriminate that virtually any transaction raises the risk of devastating penalties, even if certain transactions benefit U.S. interests. Today, if an entity chooses to do business in Iran, it risks being cut off from the Western financial system and the vast majority of the global economy.
Thus, Samsung actually represents a rarity – an international communications company that has operated within Iran and offered services to Iranian citizens in their native language. Now, it appears that they too will scale back on their services, following the path of other global telecommunication firms.
The vast majority of goods that helped fuel the Green Movement in 2009 remain under sanction, including hardware like cell phones and laptops, commercial software and encryption tools like virtual private networks (VPNs), services including satellite internet access and web hosting, and financial transactions that facilitate the transfer of these goods and services. As a result, U.S. policy is making it harder for Iranians to organize, document human rights abuses, and access freely available information on the web. Even Iranian Americans last year reported they were in some cases being blocked from buying Apple products out of inflated fears that they might, in turn, be shipped to Iran, an act that would violate U.S. sanctions.
In 2012, in response to Tehran’s efforts to censor and block the internet, President Obama condemned the “Electronic Curtain” that was descending on the Iranian people and declared that Iranians “have a universal right to access information, and to freely assemble online.” Additionally, the Obama administration took some very limited steps to ensure that Iranian citizens were able to access widely available communication software. However, these exemptions are so narrow that most companies whose software is exempt don’t allow their services to be accessed in Iran.
Due to the sweeping nature of U.S. sanctions policy, which has inhibited Iranian communication and access to information, it is hard to argue that we aren’t helping the regime to lower the “Electronic Curtain.”
The Green Movement signaled the approach of an era in which authoritarian regimes would be held accountable by publics connected to one another and the outside world. With the first Iranian presidential election since 2009 weeks away, it’s high time to get our policy on the right side of history. By exempting goods that facilitate Iranian communication and access to information from sanctions, we would pressure the regime to abide by human rights and respond to calls to move toward democracy. Such a simple, commonsense measure would do far more to boost the cause of democracy in Iran than indiscriminate sanctions that burden the Iranian people rather than the regime.