Washington DC - On June 26, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), in conjunction with Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Congressman Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) held a panel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill entitled "Behind the Electronic Curtain: Perspectives on Internet Restrictions and Access to Media in Iran."
PAAIA's Executive Director Saghi Mojtabai made the opening remarks to a packed audience of Congressional staff members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Ms. Mojtabai highlighted PAAIA's initiatives under the newly established Public Policy Center, emphasizing the Center's goal of providing "balanced and objective information about policy issues that have an impact on the Iranian American community and relevant to policy makers."
The panelists included cultural diplomacy expert and former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Ambassador Cynthia Schneider; State Department diplomat Ramin Asgard;, and senior policy advisor to Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jodi Herman. Ambassador Schneider is currently a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and fellow at the Brookings Institute. Ramin Asgard currently serves as Director of Partnerships and Strategic Communication at the Conflict Stabilization and Operations Bureau at the State Department. Jodi Herman is the senior policy advisor to Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on trade and foreign policy. The event was moderated by PAAIA's Director of Research and analysis, Amir Bagherpour.
This issue is of internet freedom is of significant importance to the Iranian American community, two-thirds of whom, according to the most recent PAAA Zogby -commissioned surveys communicate with family or friends in Iran on a monthly basis. The building of an electronic curtain that restricts information and ideas from entering and leaving Iran reduces the quality of life for Iranians and limits the Iranian American community's ability to communicate with loved ones in Iran. Ramin Asgard provided his perspective on the issue stating, "The effort by the Iranian government to cut off contact between their population and the outside world essentially means they don't they trust their own people; communication is particularly scrutinized and restricted between people in Iran and the Iranian American community." Following Mr. Asgard's comments, Ambassador Cynthia Schneider highlighted the experiences of people living in the Soviet Union under the Iron Curtain to the current situation under Iran's Electronic Curtain. Ambassador Schneider described the impact of the Iron Curtain on the people in the Soviet Union, stating "We penetrated the Iron Curtain with news casts, which told the truth about the outside world along with cultural programming; this allowed people to know and imagine another lifestyle that was not available to them in their living spaces." Her emphasis on connecting people through art and culture is of salience to the current situation with the Electronic Curtain, especially given the Iranian people's affinity for American culture and their own focus on art.
In explaining the Congressional perspective on this issue, Jodi Herman expanded on the Iran Sanctions Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012 (ISAHRA) legislation that recently passed in the Senate with a vote of 100 to 0. She noted that one particular section of the bill addresses the Electronic Curtain in Iran, especially as it relates to satellite jamming, a deliberate act by the Iranian government to jam international satellite signals so that Iranian people cannot access television broadcasts from abroad. Ms. Herman described a section in the bill that would deny the government of Iran satellite services if they continue to illegally disrupt satellite signals.
The panel moderator, Amir Bagherpour, posed a question regarding the recent controversy when an Apple retail store employee denied an Iranian American customer the right to purchase an Apple product because she spoke Farsi. The issue brought up an interesting question regarding the sanctions policy and how the Obama administration's guidelines for providing the Iranian people with software for fostering better access to the internet can be reconciled with the U.S. trade regulations that restrict the same companies from providing hardware such as computers and mobile phone devices. Ms. Herman explained the inherent difference between software and hardware sales as an issue of eventual use. She noted that "hardware has dual uses and can be used for things other than just communicating while software has just a single use." Mr. Asgard acknowledged the rationale stating that "because of the potential dual use of hardware on other things such as military applications, the U.S. government places tighter control on such products."
The overall goal of the panel was to provide information about the Electronic Curtain in a balanced manner and to assist congressional staffers, many of whom work closely on issues that impact the Iranian American community, in better understanding how such issues can impact the communities they represent. The panel was received with significant enthusiasm and positive reviews.
To view a video of the panel presentation, click here.
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