• 30 October 2009
  • Posted By Matt Sugrue
  • Uncategorized

A License to Chat

Cross posted from the Huffington Post

The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) should clarify its position regarding the legality of Microsoft’s offering its instant messenger service within Iran. As a result of ambiguities within OFAC’s guidelines on Iran sanctions, Microsoft Corporation voluntarily withdrew its Windows Live Messenger program from Iran in late 2008. Preventing such a potentially valuable resource from being downloaded does not inhibit the Iranian government from accomplishing any of its goals, but it does impede the ability of ordinary Iranians to communicate. One solution is simple and effective: OFAC’s director should issue a general license to Microsoft to allow Windows Live Messenger to be made immediately available to the Iranian people.

According to OFAC’s guidelines on sanctions for Iran, “the receipt or transmission of postal, telegraphic, telephonic or other personal communications, which does not involve the transfer of anything of value, between the United States and Iran is authorized.” In addition, “informational materials” such as films, tapes, compact discs, and news wire feeds are also allowed. From these and other similar items on OFAC’s list, it is reasonable to assume that online messenger services should be allowed, since they clearly fall under the “personal communications” and “informational materials” rubrics.   

Microsoft explains, however, that though the “personal communications” aspect of Windows Live Messenger is authorized, the downloadable software required for operating the service is not. Windows Live Messenger falls between two seemingly contradictory policies: on the one hand, Messenger is used for personal communication, and is therefore allowed. On the other hand, using Messenger requires that the program’s relevant “valuable” software be downloaded. Microsoft is nervous about the potential legal liability for carrying out activities in Iran, and has therefore decided to err on the side of caution, and understandably so.

Windows Live Messenger is of negligible value to those groups–the Iranian government and military–which are the targets of U.S. sanctions. Allowing Windows Live Messenger to be available in Iran would not benefit the government. Even if Iranian authorities access the programming code that runs Windows Live Messenger, it will not provide the government with any sensitive, or even particularly useful, technology. Messenger’s true value lies in its ability to facilitate the Iranian peoples’ communication with each other and the outside world–something they desperately need.

Social networking services greatly enhanced the organizing and communications abilities of the Iranian opposition movements both during and after June’s disputed election. The U.S. government has acknowledged the utility of social networking sites for the Iranian democracy movement. The State Department asked Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance shutdown due to its prominent use in the post-election protests. The U.S. government viewed Twitter as facilitating personal communication and informational material.

What is more, there is no more basic founding principle of the United States than the notion that individual freedoms must be promoted and protected. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both present the construction of a free society as the most important foundational principle of the United States. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin once said, “Where liberty dwells, there is my country.” A belief that people, regardless of nationality, should be allowed to organize, speak and generally conduct their lives as they see fit is at the center of American domestic and foreign policy. Consequently, it is only consistent with American values and ideals to promote these same freedoms to people around the globe who need them most.

By hewing to the letter, rather than the spirit of US sanctions, OFAC is unintentionally aiding President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC in their efforts to limit the ability of the Iranian people to organize demonstrations and communicate with the rest of the global community. Limiting the ability of citizens to communicate is one of most effective tools that totalitarian governments have for controlling the flow of information and preventing opposition movements from gaining supporters. 

President Obama, referring to the Iranian election in June, said “The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.” It is time for the U.S. government to stand with the Iranian people not only through rhetoric but also action. An important symbol of U.S. support would be to state unequivocally that anything that helps the Iranian people speak out against repression has the support of the US Government.

Bio: Matthew Sugrue recently completed a graduate degree in history of the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East at Dalhousie University.

Posted By Matt Sugrue

    3 Responses to “A License to Chat”

  1. Pirouz says:

    Matt, you had me right up to your second to last paragraph. Do you honestly consider Iran a totalitarian government? I could entertain the possibility of authoritarian, but totalitarian? Unfortunately, this serves to undermine what is otherwise a convincing argument.

    Also, please don’t neglect the ordinary Iranian people that support Khamanei and Ahmadinejad. They count, too, Matthew. And from the only hard data available, they make up the majority. Their needs and aspirations should not be considered any less than those of the reformists or those more attune to Western liberalism. To do otherwise, constitutes an advocacy of inherent injustice.

  2. Pirouz says:

    Just to be clear, I meant the potential use of this technology by ordinary Iranian citizens that support Khamanei and Ahmadinejad. Their intended usage should not be ignored, nor should it be shunned in the discussion.

  3. Alireza says:

    I wonder what Pirouz thinks of the “ordinary Iranian citizens” (translation: operatives of the IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence) using spyware from Nokia Siemens to spy on those non-ordinary Iranian citizens “more attune to Western liberalism” (translation: anyone opposed to a theocratic-military dictatorial regime)? Denying the IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence the means to track down, imprison, and torture critics of the regime potentially “constitutes an advocacy of inherent injustice.”

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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