Sanctions on Iran are changing: the role protests and technological power

The protests in Iran, which began in September following the death of Mahsa Amini, are intrinsically linked to defending women’s rights. However, these protests are also characterized by the fact that they have led to a disruptive and unusual change or exception to the US sanctions program against Iran. Specifically, the US Treasury Department has updated a license allowing export controls on technology products by US companies to Iran for the provision of internet services, social media platforms, video conferencing and cloud services, and to support anti-censorship tools and software .

Internet shutdowns and the impact on safety and rights

The reason: Government agencies have increased internet traffic shutdowns within the country, and blocking of content on social media such as Instagram and WhatsApp has increased. These spaces were often used for mobilization and the exchange of protest material. The phenomenon is not new: During Iran’s economic protests in November 2019, people had problems when trying to access services such as online payments.

Corresponding Get it now, Iran was the third largest country in the world in terms of most state-sponsored internet shutdowns in 2021, behind only India (106 blockades) and Myanmar (15). Iran executed five. Trends show that these shutdowns occur during election days or protests.

Many of the countries conducting internet shutdowns do not have solid domestic tech industries. However, some have public Certificate Authorities (CAs) that administer internet governance certifications, allowing for greater self-government and centralized decision-making to redirect internet traffic. Other widely used tools are “deep pocket inspection” technologies, which allow them to monitor, reroute, and modify Internet traffic. Such is the case with the National Information Network Project in Iran.

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Faced with the rising number of internet and social media blockades, protesters have been looking for alternative platforms. Telegram cannot be used because it was banned in 2018. Some companies, for example from Canada, have provided access to their messaging services. During some protests in January 2018, usage of a Canadian application went from 3 million to 10 million users in a matter of days.

Other technological tools have been made available through funding from US government development programs such as NERD (Regional Democracy in the Middle East), funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in Iran. It includes, among other things, targeted training courses for Iranian activists on Internet freedoms.

The role of Iran sanctions and the technology case

However, these two measures – seeking alternative private sector platforms and government-backed funding through development programs – are not enough to address security and rights.

The Biden administration has introduced a license that provides sanctions waivers for exporting technology products to Iran. The aim is to support the needs of the private sector and civil society. It is not a new license as a first targeted license of this type was introduced back in 2013. However, the latter only allowed six types of activity (instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, photo and video sharing, web browsing). ; and blogging) and there was a requirement for “need to enable communication”. This first license has been criticized for offering little legal certainty, which has reduced incentives to export technology to Iran in recent years.

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In 2022, the updated license has expanded the number of types of services US players can bring to Iran and does not require justification of “need”. In addition, the US Treasury Department has opened up the possibility of granting applications that “support internet freedom in Iran, including the development and support of anti-surveillance software through special licenses by Iranian developers that can be issued with greater flexibility. The exemption from economic sanctions against Iran applies mainly to software and to a lesser extent to hardware – which can impede the export of physical products, such as B. Elon Musk’s offer to provide Internet services via StarLink microsatellites -.

The implications for global geopolitics

It may seem that the exemption from economic sanctions against Iran is somewhat unique. The exception, however, demonstrates the increasing role technology is playing at the geopolitical level, both in terms of security and economic and human rights impacts.

The shift within a sanctions program that seemed so compact and impervious to exceptions is unheard of. It’s likely the move is part of President Joe Biden’s strategy to return to a nuclear deal that was rejected by Donald Trump in 2015. The current US administration is trying to revive it.

On the other hand, blocking the internet is not a loophole in international (soft) law. Under Article 35 of the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency, which has also been an area of ​​rivalry over the past year, parties have the right to “suspend telecommunications services” so long as it does so “immediately” with the other States Parties to the Communicated to ITU and the Secretary General. In the current case of the protests in Iran, the ITU was not informed.

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Finally, this case raises the need to expand measures of technological diplomacy. In the EU, an awareness-raising campaign on the impact of internet shutdowns on human rights was recently completed between the European External Action Service and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024 includes more than 10 technology policy measures. And the recently published EU Council conclusions on digital diplomacy in July 2022 demonstrate a commitment to addressing the security and rights impact of technology on a global scale. Also, the recent appointment of the Special Envoy of the US Department of State’s Office on Cyberspace and Digital Policy could allow for more traction on related activities, building on the Statement on the Future of the Internet. The EU-US Trade and Technology Council Working Group 6 on Abuses Threatening Security and Human Rights must speed up its work.

This is not an easy task. Transforming political declarations, declarations and campaigns into solid, actionable diplomatic initiatives, building coalitions with third countries for decision-making and setting the political agenda, and operational cooperation on technological matters are not only necessary but also strategic actions to lead new layer of the world energy.

Image: Protests in Stuttgart (Germany) in support of women’s rights following the death of Masha Amini. Photo: Ideophagus (Wikimedia Commons).