• 6 January 2010
  • Posted By Jamal Abdi
  • Events in Iran, Sanctions

The Latest Tool for Iran’s Opposition: iPhone Apps

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post

Iranians will soon have a new tool at their disposal to broadcast their protests and their government’s repression to the outside world. Voice of America announced last week that it will unveil a new application for iPhone and Android mobile devices that will enable Iranians to upload videos, photos and other content to the VOA’s Persian News Network. The app will be available for download on VOA’s website, as well as through VOA’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, and even from the Apple store.

This development may seem minor given that Iranians are already using camera phones and Twitter accounts to funnel information to the outside world. But the significance is that, until a recent policy shift, it has been illegal for American software to go to Iran–meaning that the Iranian uprising, which itself could be described as an open source movement, has been denied access to some of the most innovative communication and networking software available due to obsolete US policies.

Even as Iranians have broadcast their protests over the last seven months–snapping and uploading photos of brutal government repression to Facebook, circulating names via Twitter of innocent Iranians secretly detained in sweeps–and even as US policymakers have called for the Obama Administration to do more to support the Iranian protesters–it has been official US policy to block Iranians from accessing the very software that helped enable them to share their movement with world.

The old policy was a perfect example of what happens when targeted measures are eschewed for broad, indiscriminate sanctions. While it may make sense for the US to deny the Iranian government technology it uses for nefarious purposes like blocking Iranians from accessing the Internet, US sanctions have been so broad that, in the same stroke, they also denied the Iranian people the software to access the Internet in the first place.

But in mid-December, the Obama Administration, along with Members of Congress, announced that this would change. On December 15, the Administration stated that it was working to draft new rules to longer stand in the way of communications software going to the Iranian people. Just prior to the announcement, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act was introduced in Congress, which, if passed, will codify the elimination of these harmful restrictions into law.

Now, as a result, the first iPhone app will soon be introduced providing new ways for Iranians to connect with the world. And thousands of application developers will no longer be blocked from writing software that can provide innovative ways to strengthen social networks and Internet communications in Iran.

The impact that this particular VOA app will have is yet to be seen; iPhone and Android developers have created apps that to do everything from the useful–such as an app that alerts users of upcoming speed traps on the freeway–to the not so useful–like the “knock on wood” app that provides a virtual piece of wood to rap on. But what’s more important than the application itself is that it represents a new paradigm and may be the first in a flurry of new tools available for Iranians.

When the protests began in Iran, the US had few chips to play and there appeared to be little Washington could do to express support without undermining the opposition. But nearly seven months after the stolen election that sparked for the Iranian uprising, the opposition has increased in numbers and diversity, covering broadening swaths of the population. President Obama’s approach of “bearing witness” and speaking out in increasingly strong terms on human rights continues to be vindicated. But even this approach would not be possible if not for Iranians’ access to Twitter, Facebook, and communication software, which the December 15 policy shift and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act recognize.

The Administration has recognized that the US does not need to merely express support, it needs to get out of the way. The US government has been in the business of sanctions for so long, many did not realize that it could actually take a step back and allow Iran’s rulers to fall on their own sword.
What is happening in Iran is a movement by Iranians for Iranians. The removal of US barriers to free communication by Iranians represents a new crack in the crumbling wall of Iranian repression–a wall that the US inadvertently helped support through broad, sloppy sanctions, but from which we should now step back and allow to crumble.

Posted By Jamal Abdi

    5 Responses to “The Latest Tool for Iran’s Opposition: iPhone Apps”

  1. Pirouz says:

    iPhone and Android? How many Iranians inside Iran actually use these current devices? My guess is a handful.

    And with impassioned media articles associating VOA with specific applications of new software that assist with “allow to crumble” regime efforts, well, we’re openly provided with the rationale for SAVAMA’s recently disclosed list of illegal entities with which to associate with. I ask you, Jamal, how is this helping “the cause”?

    How can the opposition be gauged to have increased, when the actual level of protest has not come close to the level it showed back in June? Or is your gauge based upon willingness to commit acts of violence and engage in the destruction of public property?

    As for Twitter, how many of the tweets last Ashura turned out to be grossly false rumors? I monitored them- there were lot’s of them. How useful is that? And to whom? Those are the questions that should be being asked.

    It’s one thing to engage in sincere political cheerleading. It’s quite another to openly engage in subversion based upon artificial norms and expectations.

  2. Hooman says:

    Aside from the fact that very little people have iphones, the biggest concern is security. At least with the current method, people use anti-filters and VPNs which make tracing them very difficult for the regime. Will the iphone have these capabilities?

    There are so many things that people of Iran need desperately such as a VOA link not interrupted by interferences; Or VPN Servers allowing them to bypass government filters that prevent them from reaching YouTube.
    This iPhone thing is more like a joke or a publicity stunt.

  3. Payam says:


    How is this useful if Iran’s Mobile Data is blocked? To be able to use an iphone or Android app, you need a 3G or Wi-Fi connection and I am pretty sure GSM systems in Iran does not have this capability so I am not sure if this is such a great idea!

  4. Zoey Stewart says:

    Anyone grabbed an unlocked iphone off ebay? That means i can use it on any network right?

  5. good post,very thanksful for this

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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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