By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
WASHINGTON -- The lifting of U.S. sanctions on the export to Iran of communication tools has been welcomed by activists and groups who had pushed for such a move and argued that the sanctions end up hurting ordinary Iranians, not the regime.
A woman talks on her mobile phone as she browses for mobile phones in Tehran. (file photo)
On May 30, the U.S. Treasury and the State Department said they were removing sanctions on sales of such devices in order to enhance the ability of the Iranian people to access communication technology and provide them with safer and more sophisticated equipment to help them circumvent Tehran's attempt to disrupt their access to information.
They said it would "empower the Iranian people."
The U.S. departments also issued a warning to the clerical establishment over human rights abuses and censorship efforts.
Among the Iranian groups hailing the move is the Iranian American National Council (NIAC), which described the lifting of the sanctions as "an extremely positive step."
"There was no better example of sanctions that undermined human rights and civil society efforts of Iranians and helped the regime," NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi said in a statement.
Prominent Iranian human rights activist Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeni described the scrapping of the sanctions as an "important" move that could facilitate and enhance communication between Iranians inside the country as well as with the outside world.
But he also warned that it won't end the government in Tehran's efforts at censorship.
"[T]he cat-and-mouse game between the Iranian government and Internet users will continue, so will Iran's attempts to jam satellite programs," Musavi Khoeni said. "It will now depend on the users -- how keen they are to use this newly created opportunity and prevent the government from blocking this path."
Musavi Khoeni, a former Iranian lawmaker, told RFE/RL that clear guidelines and guarantees are needed for private companies who still feel hampered by sanctions.
The United States eased some restrictions on Internet communications tools in 2010, which allowed U.S. companies to export free online services like instant messaging to Iran.
The May 30 move goes further by allowing the sale of a wide range of tools, including mobile phones, computers, virtual private networks (VPNs), and web-hosting services.
Despite the sanctions, some Iranians have been able to obtain many such tools -- including iPhones and other sophisticated products -- from local stores and the black market.
Human rights activist Kouhyar Goudarzi, who recently fled Iran, told RFE/RL that he applauded the removal of the sanctions on technology.
"The sanctions affect ordinary people. It's a violation of their rights, [so] the U.S. decision is very important," Goudarzi said. "Currently in Iran, because of the state pressure, many [people] communicate only in cyberspace, therefore this decision could be very effective."
The U.S. move is not likely to have an immediate effect, since it will take some time for companies to review their policies and decide whether and what to sell to Iran.
The ban remains in place for U.S. government entities.
An activist based in Tehran wrote on Facebook that Iranians should thank the United States for its decision.
Others, however, complained that sanctions on communication tools shouldn't have been imposed in the first place.
Iranian officials did not initially react to the U.S. decision.
Some analysts quoted by Iranian media suggested that the United States was trying to influence Iranians ahead of June's presidential election.
"This means that the [United States] is trying to attract the public opinion to the positive messages it is sending so that people avoid choosing someone who insists on resistance [against the United States] and is unwilling to compromise," the Fararu website quoted university professor Ardeshir Sanayi as saying.
The Internet has had an effect on Iranian activists, who use social media to discuss banned issues and inform others about the ongoing state repression and the plight of political prisoners.
In 2009, the Internet and mobile phones were used extensively by opposition members to document the brutal crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Since then, Iran has moved to tighten its control of the Internet.
In recent weeks the regime has stepped up its online censorship by disrupting antifiltering tools and VPNs and by increasing its blocking of news websites.
The measures are seen as part of Tehran's attempts to disrupt the free flow of information and prevent unrest like the mass street protests in 2009.
"As the Iranian government attempts to silence its people by cutting off their communication with each other and the rest of the world, the United States will continue to take action to help the Iranian people exercise their universal human rights, including the right to freedom of expression," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Also on May 30, the United States announced that it has blacklisted the deputy chief of staff of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Asghar Mir-Hejazi, who was sanctioned for his alleged role in state crackdowns. Washington also designated an Iranian body involved in state filtering of the Internet and issued visa restrictions for more than 50 government officials for alleged human rights abuses.
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