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Technology and U.S. Foreign Policy

by LEGAL CORRESPONDENTS in Tehran and Washington, D.C.

31 Dec 2009 20:455 Comments
iran_internet_400.jpg[ opinion ] Last week, the Obama administration took a positive step in addressing what had been an embarrassing incongruity in U.S. policy towards Iran. While publicly espousing democratic ideals, the United States prohibited Iranian citizens from downloading mass-market Internet communication tools vital to combating the suppression of information by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

However, while laudable, removing sanctions on instant messaging and social networking software is not enough. Specifically, Congress and the Executive Office should implement complementary regulations that help Iranian citizens access such tools immediately.

In an attempt to reshape public opinion in Iran after a tumultuous summer and ongoing protests, leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have engaged in an almost unprecedented information crackdown -- increasing levels of censorship across all media, sporadically blocking or slowing the Internet, and intimidating journalists and photographers.

Information sharing is particularly important in Iran today. The main opposition, the Green Movement, has supported and sustained itself by information distribution. Prompt and mass communication is vital, given that it is a viral movement made up of many different camps collaborating to protest government corruption and authoritarianism.

The Iranian government recognizes the role technology plays in promoting dissent and has taken steps to undermine the use of the Internet, including: developing filtering mechanisms that censor or block selected websites; slowing Internet speed to inhibit the ability to upload content onto social networking sites; systematically arresting, imprisoning, and torturing prominent journalists, bloggers, online activists, and technical staff; and even designing an all-Iran intranet to give itself greater control over what Iranians do online.

Current U.S. sanctions perversely aid the Iranian government's efforts to stifle the Internet by prohibiting access to crucial information technology. Broad technology sanctions treat all Iranians as members of the Iranian government. For example, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), tasked with administering and enforcing the Iran sanctions, has limited exceptions for telecommunications to only allow telephone calls between Iran and the United States. This stale and unhelpful interpretation of the Iranian sanctions made it a crime for American companies to provide variety of services, including Internet service, web browsers, instant messengers, social-networking sites and other collaborative tools. These restrictions are outdated, largely because the vast majority of these regulations predate much of the technology that is now widespread. In other words, technology has outpaced the sanctions themselves, so that regulations less than a decade old are obsolete given the current political climate in Iran.

Indeed, OFAC has done little to assuage software and technology companies' well founded fears of U.S. government civil or criminal actions and has likewise done little to clarify the ambiguities that exist in the regulations. It is imperative that OFAC defines the new regulations with the stated goal of allowing Iranian citizens access to these crucial Internet tools.

To prevent further the hindering of democratic aspirations in Iran, the U.S. government should:

1. Clarify federal regulations concerning the distribution of information and communication technology, with an eye toward enabling the transfer of key Internet technology that allows Iranians access to instant messaging, social networking and microblogging sites.

2. Allow the Department of Treasury to grant licenses for general providers of Internet software or Internet services to Iran. OFAC and the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) may jointly review each application, as they currently do in other contexts, to maintain the U.S. government's ability to safeguard certain sensitive technology.

3. Pass the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA). The Act, introduced last Monday in the House, authorizes export of software and related services that enable communication by the Iranian people and allow private Iranian citizens to circumvent online censorship and monitoring efforts.

The question is not if the Iranian opposition movement will succeed, but whether as Americans we supported them. The Obama administration has taken a necessary step towards unwinding policies that hindered those in Iran who are fighting for the same democratic principles that we, as a nation, espouse. The Treasury Department must exercise foresight in the implementing regulations to ensure that Iranians will not be blocked from having tools necessary to access communication technology.

The greatest threat to an authoritarian government is an increased openness from within that society. The Iranian government, obsessed with maintaining its current power structure at the expense of its citizens' freedoms, will eventually find itself on the wrong side of history in today's information revolution. The United States can, and should, do less to support the Iranian government's suppression by re-evaluating and revising its sanctions policy.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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5 Comments

International protest is urged over Iran

www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/12/31/world/AP-EU-France-Iran-Shahs-Son.html?_r=2

Farzin / December 31, 2009 9:03 PM

This is an excellent piece and long overdue. I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which it as been presented. I do want to point out though that a great portion of the Iranian population does not have access to the internet or even satellite TV. This is the porion of the population only exposed to the Iranian state broadcast, and which can be brought onto the streets in state sponsored demonstrations and used to oppress the majority of Iranians. Therefore we need a rethinking of the American strategy towards the provision of technology. First, obsolete and ill-serving sanctions should be removed. Secondly, we need to consider ways to break the broadcast monopoly of the Iranian state. This can be accomplished by providing short wave radio infrastructure to programmers who are hoping to reach Iranians too poor to afford satellite dishes or computers. There are many such radio programmers including myself, who have identified conservative, poor, or provincial segments of the population who once exposed to real news and information may change their stance towards the Islamic Republic's leadership.

Babak / December 31, 2009 9:24 PM

If Iranians could magically choose which US sanctions they would most like to see lifted- internet social media software or civilian aircraft parts- I'm pretty sure they'd pick the aircraft parts.

Pirouz / January 1, 2010 1:43 PM

I still can not understand difference between 2 scenario:if some external power will undermine political system of USA ,no doubt,it will be named "terrorism".When the same thing is directed against Iran its name " to prevent further the hindering of democratic aspirations in Iran".Isn't it double standard?
I am former admirer of myth about US-democracy.Today i have shame for my naive youth.My terrible historical lesson - never wait democracy from US. In the meanwhile US president didn't notice 400 palestinian children killed in 20 day what kind democracy do you mean? All this unrests of naive people were perfidiously exploited ,leaving nothing but tragedies. In order to promote global democracy there are one single way - promoting fair universal international law. Absence such law(effective, free of veto) namely promoting terrorism.Terrorism kills thousands,State terrorism - millions...

Marat / January 1, 2010 10:13 PM

Thank you for the great article.

All sanctions against Iran should be removed. These sanctions only hurt the people and the movement for democracy in Iran. You are very right in saying that "THE GREATEST THREAT TO AN AUTHORITARIAN GOVERNMENT IS AN INCREASED OPENNESS FROM WITHIN THAT SOCIETY."
The more the US and European countries engage with Iran and the Iranian people, the more they will help the movement towards democracy in Iran.

niloufar / January 2, 2010 12:10 AM