President Barack Obama's administration plans to lift U.S. trade sanctions that bar sales of consumer communications equipment and software to ordinary Iranians, according to the National Iranian American Council, Bloomberg reported.
The policy shift is to be announced today by the U.S. State and Treasury departments, which administer the sanctions that have been imposed on such consumer electronics since 1992, according to Jamal Abdi, a spokesman for the council, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
The action was confirmed by a State Department official who asked not to be identified because the announcement hasn't been made. The change is intended to help Iranians communicate through social media, text messaging, and mobile-phone videos in order to overcome some of the media and communications restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities.
"Now the U.S. is taking steps to ensure that, as Iran's government cracks down on Internet access and SMS, sanctions will no longer block cellphones, software and hardware," according to Abdi. SMS is an abbreviation for short message service text messaging.
The U.S. has supported such attempts to boost democratic movements and stepped up efforts to stop regimes such as those in Iran and Syria from blocking social media through what Obama has called the "malign use of technology."
In November, the administration imposed sanctions on Iranian officials - including the nation's communications minister - and government agencies for blocking Internet access, mobile-phone lines and satellite-television channels to stifle free speech.
The decision to waive some sanctions runs counter to recent actions in which the U.S. has generally tightened financial and trade restrictions on Iran as part of an international effort to persuade the regime in Tehran to give up activities that could lead to making nuclear weapons.
The National Iranian American Council has been urging the U.S. to aid ordinary Iranians and to assist the reform movement in the Persian Gulf country by ending the communications-equipment sanctions, making it easier and less costly to obtain such gear. The change will lift restrictions on hardware such as mobile telephones and laptop computers and on some software, such as antivirus programs, Abdi said.
"The sanctions were felt most acutely four years ago, at the height of Iran's green movement protests," the group said in a statement.
"The world was galvanized by cell-phone videos and reports of abuses coming from inside of Iran, and SMS and other communications tools were being used to help organize massive demonstrations. Yet all of those tools were under U.S. sanctions."
The restrictions have blocked companies from selling laptops, mobile phones or modems to Iranians, which has fueled a black market for the goods. They also have blocked services such as satellite-based Internet access, website hosting, and virtual private networks for Iranian citizens, according to the group.
Under the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992, the president may waive the requirement to impose certain sanctions if it is "essential to the national interest" of the U.S. This waiver authority has since been delegated to the under secretary of state for arms control and international security.
The administration previously eased some restrictions on mass-market software needed for Internet communications after noting that the sanctions were having an "unintended chilling effect" on the ability of companies such as Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Google Inc. (GOOG), based in Mountain View, California, to continue providing essential communications tools to ordinary Iranians.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control will issue a general license authorizing export of consumer communications equipment and certain types of software to consumers in Iran, according to Abdi.