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Obama Implements New Sanctions Targeting Internet Repression in Iran and Syria

President Obama signed an Executive Order yesterday implementing new sanctions against Iran and Syria regarding Internet repression. The measures would freeze assets of foreign companies that help deny free communication via the Internet in Iran and Syria.

President Obama

Washington, DC – President Obama signed an Executive Order yesterday implementing new sanctions against Iran and Syria regarding Internet repression.

The measures would freeze assets of foreign companies that help deny free communication via the Internet in Iran and Syria.  The sanctioned entities, four Iranian and two Syrian, include the intelligence ministries of both countries and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).  All of the Iranian entities listed were already sanctioned under existing law or regulation except for the telecommunications company Datak. 

It is unlikely that any of the listed Iranian entities have assets inside the U.S. that can be frozen.  However, according to NIAC Assistant Policy Director David Elliott, “While these sanctions technically only freeze the assets of targeted entities inside of the United States, foreign banks often comply with the U.S. bans as well.  This makes it more difficult for these companies to operate worldwide, and will make international companies think twice before they sell advanced censorship and tracking tools to Iran or Syria.”

The new sanctions come a little over a week after Iran and the U.S. restarted multilateral negotiations in Istanbul, which officials on all sides said were hopeful.  A follow-up session in which the sides would begin to hammer out concessions has been scheduled for late May in Baghdad.  The implementation of the sanctions may suggest that the Administration will not drop the human rights issue as diplomacy on nuclear issue progresses, though it also comes as the President faces political pressure from Congress to demonstrate toughness on Iran and Syria.

While targeted sanctions and pressure regarding human rights are one tool to leverage regarding Iran’s human rights situation, NIAC has maintained that, ultimately, the only effective means to resolve the abuses will come through direct negotiations.  Pro-human rights and anti-war organizations have called for the diplomatic track with Iran to be sustained and broadened beyond the nuclear file to address human rights.  

Restrictions against the export of repressive technology to Iran were originally passed into law by Congress two years ago as part of a major Iran sanctions package. While opposing the package of broad sanctions that was passed in 2010, NIAC supported the targeted measures focused on human rights and Internet communication, stating that they would force companies to “cease their sales of technology that is used to restrict Iranians’ freedom of speech." 

A major concern with sanctions related to Internet technology, however, is that they can often be too broad.  In attempting to deny repressive governments with the tools to monitor and censor the Internet, ordinary Iranians have been denied access to crucial communication software and hardware—including basic software like web browsers.  The Obama Administration has taken several steps to address such concerns, including a recent General License this past March, called for by NIAC, to ease restrictions on basic software.

Further steps are needed, however, to ensure U.S. sanctions are not preventing Iranians from access basic technology and services, including satellite Internet.  Further concerns linger regarding Iran’s cyber repression, including satellite signal jamming and the planned implementation of a “National Intranet” that would lock Iranian users into a government-run system and out of the global Internet.

 

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