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Opinion | Apple's 'Iran Policy' Shows Why We Can't Shy Away from Politics


22 Jun 2012 23:33Comments

U.S.-Iranian relations affect the entire community.

Nobar Elmi is the director of community outreach and programming at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). She previously served as a legislative liaison for a Texas state agency and worked seven years at a prominent Los Angeles public affairs and lobbying firm. Jamal Abdi is NIAC's policy director. He previously served as a policy adviser on Capitol Hill.
[ opinion ] Earlier this week, news broke about an incident in which a 19-year-old Iranian American girl was denied the right to purchase an iPad simply because she was speaking Farsi with her uncle.

As additional stories emerged of similar experiences encountered by Iranian Americans and Iranians at Apple stores, our community was understandably outraged. But what makes it even more disturbing is that similar stories have gone unnoticed. Why is this happening? Is this similar to the racism Iranians and Iranian Americans encountered during the hostage crisis in the 1980s or after 9/11? Or is there more to it?

First, we need to realize that what is happening is not just a series of individual cases of alarming behavior. Iranophobia is on the rise with escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, not to mention the rhetoric and actions of Iran's government. The Apple controversy is just the latest example of sanction laws being so broad that they are misinterpreted or overenforced and mistakenly applied. In this case, a corporate policy may have been misunderstood by certain employees. More and more frequently, however, we're seeing private companies that are erring on the side of caution and using overly broad interpretations of the sanctions law to protect themselves, to the detriment of Iranians and Iranian Americans. The pressure to enforce broad, ambiguously defined sanctions opens the door to profiling and discrimination.

One can ask, Are the companies to blame for being overly cautious or not educating their employees about their sanctions policies? Or are the Obama administration and Congress to blame for continuing to broaden the sanctions and not issuing clear exemptions and guidelines for what is allowed?

We think it's a bit of both. The administration has used "intentional ambiguity" in its guidelines in order to dissuade any dealings with Iran -- legal or illegal. On the other hand, President Obama did renew a push to persuade companies like Google, Yahoo, and Adobe that the sanctions exemptions meant they should not continue blocking their Internet communication tools in Iran. Yet few of these companies have taken any steps to allow basic communication services to be available that are useful for Iranian democrats and human rights supporters.

Given this reality, it's time to face the music. While some of us in our community may shy away from politics, we must recognize: this is a political issue, pure and simple. U.S.-Iranian relations affect all of us here at home in the United States, not just our friends and family members in Iran.

None of us should be surprised that this is happening. Unintended consequences are the reality of broad sanctions. It's been the policy of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) for many years to oppose broad, indiscriminate sanctions because they don't punish the right targets (e.g., human rights abusers, the Iranian government) and instead hit ordinary people. The first time NIAC dealt with discrimination due to sanctions policy was ten years ago, when Monster.com prohibited job seekers from listing any work experience in Iran and other sanctioned countries, and removed such references from their resumes. We challenged Monster's overenforcement and succeeded in correcting the company's policy.

Since then, there have been numerous other examples of unintended consequences. We've seen banks cut off services to Iranian American NGOs despite their having licenses to provide humanitarian work in Iran, individuals get their bank accounts frozen because they traveled to Iran, researchers denied grants because their work included people in Iran, and Iranian Americans blocked from accessing their pensions -- to name just a few cases. And this is nothing compared to what is happening to ordinary Iranians in Iran due to the sanctions. We know how unsafe it is to board an airplane in Iran. We all remember when Iranian students were blocked from taking the TOEFL test required to leave Iran and study abroad last year. And the economic pain now being felt in Iran is only going to escalate with crippling new sanctions going into place at the end of this month.

Opposition to indiscriminate economic sanctions is a widely held, but not unanimous view within our community. And it doesn't have to be. But supporters of sanctions must, at the very least, acknowledge the collateral damage and explain why those consequences are worth it.

We need to call on the U.S. government to take the necessary steps to ensure sanctions do not continue to be misapplied or overenforced to the detriment of Iranian Americans and Iranians. We also need to continue to call out private companies that are overenforcing and misapplying sanctions. And we need to challenge companies like Apple, whose employees' actions are demeaning and discriminatory.

But we also need to be invested in the political process and the tough issues that our community has a responsibility to confront. We can't shy away from politics or avoid taking on controversial issues regarding U.S.-Iranian relations. It is up to us to not be silent -- if we ourselves don't stand up for our community, no one will.

The opinions expressed are the authors' own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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