The U.S. government has lifted sanctions on the export of a variety of consumer communications devices, software, and services including mobile phones to Iran ahead of elections in that country.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury, in consultation with the U.S. Department of State, has issued a license authorizing the export to Iran of certain personal communications services, software, and hardware, it said on Thursday.
Exports of the devices to Iran had been blocked since the 1990s, but the U.S. government now holds that the new license aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information.
The export of the equipment to the Iranian government or to any individual or entity on a Specially Designated Nationals list continued to be prohibited.
"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," according to a statement by the two U.S. departments.
The license, which came into effect Thursday, allows for the export and re-export from the U.S. of fee-based services, software and hardware required for personal communications over the Internet, including instant messaging, email, chat, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing and blogging.
The products, software, and services now authorized for export to Iran include mobile phones, personal digital assistants, satellite phones, computers, consumer network equipment, anti-tracking software, anti-censorship tools, virtual private networks, proxy tools and voice-over-IP and video chat tools.
The National Iranian American Council had earlier asked the U.S. government to lift sanctions on communication tools, with elections for a new president for Iran scheduled for June.
Referring to the killing of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan during protests after the last presidential elections in Iran in 2009, the council pointed out that the video of her death which had an impact worldwide over the Internet was available "because an ordinary person in Iran broke U.S. sanctions." The Green Movement, opposing the ruling regime, used social media extensively in its protests.
U.S. sanctions on communications tools in Iran have been in place before social media, text messaging, and cell phones were an everyday part of life, and were felt most acutely four years ago, at the height of Iran's Green Movement protests, the NIAC said in a statement. Except for some limited actions taken by the U.S. to ease sanctions on basic, freely available software, and to license other tools in 2010, the sanctions on communications tools continued until the decision on Thursday.
The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iran as it holds that the country is enriching uranium that could potentially be used in nuclear weapons. Iran counters that its nuclear program has peaceful objectives.