WASHINGTON (AP) — American tech firms are allowed to expand business in Iran, where most Internet access has been shut down in response to anti-government protests, the Treasury Department said Friday.
Iran is cracking down on demonstrators protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of its morality police. Iranian state television estimates that up to 26 protesters and police officers have been killed since violence erupted over the weekend.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said the move will help counter government surveillance efforts.
“It is clear that the Iranian government is afraid of its own people,” Blinken said in an emailed statement. “Mahsa Amini is senselessly and tragically dead and now the government is violently repressing peaceful protesters who are justifiably angry at their loss.”
Morality police arrested Amini last week on the grounds that she did not properly cover her hair with the Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab. Amini collapsed at a police station and died three days later.
US sanctions were imposed on morality police and leaders of other law enforcement agencies on Thursday.
The Treasury Department said an updated general license issued on Friday empowers tech companies to offer more social media and collaboration platforms, video conferencing and cloud-based services.
The updated license also removes the requirement that communications be “personal,” which the Treasury Department said burdens businesses with the need to verify the purpose of communications.
“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is doubling down on its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” Deputy Finance Minister Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.
“With these changes, we are helping the Iranian people be better equipped to counter government efforts to monitor and censor them.”
The United Nations has called for an inquiry into Amini’s death.
Amir Rashidi, an exiled Iranian and director of cybersecurity and digital rights at Miaan Group, said lifting the restrictions will help Iranians bypass censorship.
“Also, it will provide Iranians with security and protection,” he said. “If you can have your data outside the country, Iranian security services cannot access your data unlawfully because your data is protected by international law outside of Iran.”
In 2014, the Sanctions Department of the Ministry of Finance issued a license authorizing the export to Iran of software and services that would enable the free exchange of communications over the Internet, with the intention of promoting the free flow of information for Iranian citizens.
Despite this, US firms have been reluctant to do business in Iran for fear of violating existing sanctions and other laws imposing penalties.
On Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that his satellite internet company Starlink would apply for permission to operate in Iran. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said it was up to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to decide on Starlink’s next steps.
Speaking to journalists on Friday, Treasury and State Department officials said the move, along with a recent tightening of sanctions, does not affect the government’s plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Boston.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.