• 18 February 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Congress, Iran Election 2009, Sanctions

Tear Down This Firewall

Roger Cohen, the intrepid NYTimes columnist stationed in Iran before, during and after last June’s tumultuous presidential election, took aim at the conventional wisdom among Washington’s Iran policy circles with this, in his column today:

[S]anctions will feel cathartic, satisfy the have-to-do-something itch in the Congress, and change nothing. I’m just about resigned to that. But there is a smarter approach to Iran: Instead of constraining trade, throw it open.

Rather than imposing new sanctions on the twelve square inches of Iran that we haven’t already targeted, Cohen says the US should instead lift restrictions on Internet technology exports for Iranians who will use them to exercise their right to free speech.

Savvy readers of niacINsight will note that this idea has been around for a couple of months — Rep. Jim Moran introduced the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act in December.  But Cohen is correct in noting that since then, nothing has happened. Even despite a formal letter from the State Department, essentially endorsing this very same idea, the sanctions remain in place.

And there are real consequences for that: Google and Microsoft’s instant messenger programs remain blocked by US regulations.  SourceForge, the valuable open source programming platform, has restricted all access to Iranian users.  And the Iranian government continues to censor, filter, and monitor the Internet as part of its campaign of repression.

So for policymakers desperate to “do something” about Iran, this is an eminently practical first step.

Update: Lara Friedman, over at Americans for Peace Now, also made the connection between Cohen’s piece and recent legislation aimed at relaxing pressure on the Iranian people.

Those of us who oppose efforts to impose “crippling sanctions” on the Iranian people – an approach supported by many in Congress (and most of the Jewish community) are often belligerently asked: “if you don’t support these sanctions, what is your alternative?”  The implication being that if we can’t propose another course of action then we must support the crippling sanctions, even if nearly everyone agrees that such sanctions won’t work and will likely prove counterproductive.

This is of course a silly argument – imagine two doctors arguing about how to treat a patient: Doctor 1: “We’ve tried everything we can think of and he’s not getting better, so I propose we try radiation.”  Doctor 2: “Are you nuts?  Given his condition, all medical science points to the fact that radiation won’t do anything to help him and will almost certainly make him worse”  Doctor 1: “Well, unless you have a better idea you have no choice but to accept my recommendation.” Doctor 2: “Where did you get your medical degree??”

But imaginary dialogues aside, there are some sanctions that actually make sense.  For example, it seems self-evident that it makes sense to impose sanctions on those who are enabling Iran to block the internet, censor electronic communications, and otherwise interfere with the ability of Iranian citizens to communicate with each other and the outside world (anyone remember the term “twitter revolution?”)

To which I think most people would reply: great idea!  Someone in Congress should get working on this!

Fortunately, as Lara points out, some in Congress already did!  Both the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act and the Stand with the Iranian People Act take practical steps to increase pressure on human rights violators in Iran while simultaneously decreasing pressure on the Iranian population.

That, my friends, is called “the prudent use of American smart power.”

Posted By Patrick Disney

    3 Responses to “Tear Down This Firewall”

  1. Eric says:

    but how will the dictator and his little henchman keep “law and order” if the people have uncensored access to the internet?

  2. Pirouz says:

    But Patrick, do you really think web add-ons like these are really going to sufficiently empower the reformist minority of Iran’s electorate in any meaningful way? This represents really feel-good, wishful thinking, the likes of which were thoroughly discredited on 22 Bahman 1388.

    Sanctions serve the purpose of extinguishing hopes of rapprochement, ensuring Iran’s economy cannot rival Israel’s, and nudging the nation that much closer to war against Israel’s potential Middle East rival.

    Meanwhile the children in Gaza continue not getting enough to eat: an indirect result of your $US tax dollars at work.

    Why do so many people in the region have to suffer so that 5 million people are able to forcefully maintain jewish majority rule in occupied Palestine?

  3. iranian american says:

    patrick, great post! i am uncertain about one thing, however: was roger cohen “stationed” in tehran, or was he just reporting from there? it seems he flies on his schedule, wouldn’t you say?

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Sign the Petition


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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