U.S. helps Iranians get online despite tighter sanctions

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The United States is making it easier for information-hungry Iranians to get on the internet and use social media, but has also slapped new sanctions on the economy that could make their lives more painful.

Ahead of a June 14 presidential election, during a campaign in which authorities have allegedly tightened Internet access, the U.S. has lifted a ban on selling communications gear and software to Iran.

Thursday’s move came just two weeks before the polls, but a senior official insisted that it was not related to the election.

“This is a response to their efforts to deprive their citizens of their rights,” the official said. “The timing is really driven by the continued crackdown within Iran.”

Users and experts claim the government has been tightening controls on the internet to forestall the sort of trouble that erupted after the last presidential election in 2009.

Amid widespread claims the re-election of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was fraudulent, a vigorous social networking campaign fuelled massive street demonstrations that were brutally crushed by the authorities.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said the move would allow Iranians to skirt the government’s “attempts to silence its people” and exercise “the right to freedom of expression.”

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, cheered the lifting of the 30-year-old ban as a move toward intelligent sanctions.

“We finally put an end to one of the worst examples of sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians, undermine civil society and human rights, and empower the regime,” Parsi said.

The European Union, United States and United Nations have all imposed sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend enriching uranium, which in a highly refined form can be used as the fissile core for an atomic bomb.

Tehran insists that its nuclear program is for purely peaceful ends.

The council’s Jamal Abdi told AFP that “Iranians seeking to exercise their right to freedom of expression were doing so with one hand tied behind their backs because of sanctions.

“Thankfully that knot has now been loosened.”

In practice, the decision allows U.S. companies to begin selling computers, tablets, mobile phones, software, satellite receivers and other equipment for personal use to Iranians.

It also permits the provision of instant messaging, chat, email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing and blogging.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Ehsan is a 32-year-old laptop salesman at Paytakht, one of several tech centers in Tehran where Apple products, Windows-based laptops and cracked software are available in abundance.

“This gesture, along with any other that would help us connect to the modern world, is most welcome,” Ehsan said.

IPhone seller Nima, 25, praised the lifting of the ban.

“I don’t want to jump the gun and say it’ll be all over soon but, for the first time, I am seeing some light at the end of this tunnel,” he said of the sanctions regimes.

Previously, web surfers had to use proxy servers or virtual private networks to appear as if they were online in other countries whose access to American companies such as Apple or Adobe was not restricted.

They also had to try to circumvent tough filtering by the regime, which banned access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and millions of other sites after the 2009 election.

A senior U.S. official said “our hope is... this will help make some hardware and software, including things like antivirus software or software that helps protect from malware, more available to them and make them more able to protect themselves against government hackers.”

While welcoming “this smart move,” Delphine Hagland, U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, said “we have to be careful that this... will not open the door for U.S. companies to sell filtering technology to the Iranian authorities.”

That was a reference to the regime’s ability in the past to buy U.S. technology that allowed them to censor the Internet and spy on citizens’ online activities.

Tehran has yet to react to the U.S. move, but the ultra-conservative Mashregh News website warned of the “threats” from smart phones.

“Smart phones, as a mobile computer system, can play a very substantial role in social riots,” it said, warning that they could lead to “events even more widespread” than in 2009, given the high interest among young Iranians for the devices.

But the upbeat mood could be soured in part by a new round of sanctions Washington slapped on Tehran on Monday. The country’s vital oil industry and access to global banking are already under painful sanctions.

The latest measures, authorize sanctions on foreign banks that make transactions in the Iranian currency, the already heavily depreciated rial.

That could weaken the rial further, making imports more expensive, and also make it more difficult to acquire imports.

They will also penalize anyone involved in selling goods or services to Iran’s auto industry, the country’s second-largest employer.

In the end, tech-savvy 26-year-old Ramin said “sanctions have created problems for the government but it will always be the people who pay the real price.”