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  • 10 February 2012
  • Posted By Richard Abott
  • 0 Comments
  • NIAC round-up

Iran News Roundup 2/10

Amidst increased sanctions, Asian powers push negotiation

The Foreign Ministry of China has said it would send an Assistant Foreign Minister to Iran to “have a further exchange of views with Iran over its nuclear program,” amidst sanctions that are affecting trade. China has already sought discounts on Iranian oil and cut purchases this year by over half, pushing up India to be the largest buyer of Iranian oil, although India is still working out the details of a barter system (Reuters 02/10). Moreover, Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has said it would consider proposals from Iran in barter trade. According to Reuters, Tehran is offering gold bullion in overseas vaults and tankerloads of oil in return for food and basic staples (Reuters 02/10). Meanwhile, as a delegation of Indian businessmen head to Tehran for new trade opportunities, Prime Minister Singh said “There are problems with Iran nuclear programme. We sincerely believe that this issue can be and should be resolved by giving maximum scope to diplomacy” (Reuters 02/10).

Japan is trying to gain a waiver from U.S. penalties on companies doing business with Iran while it seeks suppliers to offset a reduction in Iranian oil imports. Japan currently gets about 9% of its oil from Iran and it has already reduced Iranian oil imports by 40% in five years (AP 02/10).

Iranian oil trade flows drop and steel imports collapse

The International Energy Agency has said up to 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of Iran’s 2.6 million bpd of oil exports could be replaced once sanctions go into effect, significantly greater than the 600,000 bpd of Iranian oil the EU bought last year (Reuters 02/10).

Steel exports to Iran, one of the world’s largest importers of steel billet, are collapsing because sanctions are preventing local buyers from using major currencies. Major steel traders are unwilling to accept payment in alternative currencies such as Indian rupees and Russian roubles. Steel billets are semi-finished long steel products used primarily in construction. The reduction in Iranian imports is depressing the prices of international steel billets, which fell by about $50 a tonne in one month (Reuters 02/09).

  • 21 April 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 1 Comments
  • Congress, Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran, Sanctions

Let’s Talk About Sanctions for a Moment.

For as much focus as there is on Iran sanctions, it’s a shame there isn’t a better debate going on.

Congress is preparing to negotiate a final version of the petroleum embargo that passed both houses with overwhelming majorities a few months ago.  (Quick refresher on Congressional proceedings: The House and Senate both passed a sanctions bill, but the two bills included very different provisions.  So they both have to appoint a few members to what’s called a “Conference Committee” that is charged with negotiating a compromise version of the legislation which, after being approved once again by both chambers, will be sent to the President to be signed into law.)

This means that, for the moment, the sanctions bills are a relatively clean slate — provisions can be cut, inserted, re-worked, or even brand new ideas can be put in that never showed up in the original versions.

So this is an opportunity to make some real improvements — inserting important provisions that further human rights and support the Iranian people in a bill that is virtually guaranteed to be signed into law. The only down-side is: the main thrust of the bill is still really bad, punishing the Iranian people while letting the human rights abusers off scot-free.

But this is an opportunity that Congress would do well not to miss.  They can use this legislation to adopt some of the better ideas that have been kicking around almost instantly — things like waiving sanctions to allow Iranians to access Internet communications tools or anti-censorship programs; things like dropping the ban on sending direct humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people; or even ending the single-entry visa policy for Iranian students in the US.

None of this will solve the nuclear problem, nor will these ideas end human rights abuses in Iran.  But it will declare unambiguously that the United States is no longer interested in contributing to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.  It would take real, practical steps to make life a little easier for Iranians and a little harder for human rights abusers.

In short, it would demonstrate that the US stands with the Iranian people.

  • 24 February 2010
  • Posted By Nayda Lakelieh
  • 4 Comments
  • Diplomacy, Human Rights in Iran, Legislative Agenda, Sanctions

Drop Broadband, Not Bombs

Although plenty of Washington policymakers say the US should “support the green opposition in Iran,” how to do so remains a puzzle.

One proposal in today’s Guardian has caught some attention: provide Iranians with high speed internet access.

One of the pillars of [Iran’s] repressive policy has been media propaganda depicting protesters as vandals and stooges of foreign powers. In pursuing this policy, the government actively curtails alternative sources of information in the country (especially the BBC and VOA broadcasts in Persian), thoroughly filters sensitive websites used by protesters to communicate (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc) and reduces internet speed to just about nil to render video streaming or uploading impossible. It has even moved to ban Gmail.

Thus, one answer could be to beam high-speed Internet into Iran via satellites:

The technology to overcome this already exists. Households and businesses in areas with poor infrastructure connect to the internet through satellites. A Japanese satellite, Kizuna, was launched in 2008 to provide mountainous areas of Japan and other parts of East Asia with the world’s highest-speed internet connection using 45cm aperture antennas (the same size as existing communications satellite antennas widely used in Iran). The Japanese intend to expand this project into an international one.

A number of satellites currently covering Iran’s territory can be used to provide internet access. Indeed, the US army, through private subcontractors, successfully provides its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (where infrastructure is poor or inexistent) with near-high-speed satellite access.

One problem, though, is that US sanctions are actually contributing to the Iranian government’s ability to censor information in Iran by impeding the legal distribution of anti-filter software to Iranians and even outlawing downloads of popular networking software such as ‘Google Talk’.

Foreign companies have blocked almost all access to online shopping and financial transactions from Iran. If anyone in Iran buys software from abroad using a foreign account, their internet address will reveal their location and the bank account will be frozen.

Websites selling internet domains and hosting services will not provide services to Iranians and internet phone company Skype, which would provide Iranian dissidents with a safe means of communication via its messenger, does not allow Iranian internet addresses or let Iranians buy credit.

Even a large open source software resource recently changed its rules to stop Iranians from using it.

Access to high speed Internet in Iran is currently subjected to the whim of the ruling elite.   By providing broadband internet access for common Iranians, and giving them a more active, less censored voice, the United States will be able to support the Green Movement, without ever being directly involved within Iran’s domestic affairs.

  • 18 February 2010
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 3 Comments
  • 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.”

  • 21 January 2010
  • Posted By Jamal Abdi
  • 14 Comments
  • Human Rights in Iran

Secretary Clinton on Internet Freedom and Iran

In what was touted as a major policy speech announcing the State Department’s new Internet freedom initiative, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton today committed the US to a broad new effort to advance and protect the right of all people to access the Internet freely.

In her speech, Clinton highlighted the important role that cyber communications have played in Iran, describing online organizing as “a critical tool for advancing democracy, and enabling citizens to protest suspicious election results.”

Clinton’s comments on Iran also focused on  reports of Iranian government efforts to intimidate Iranians abroad, as well as the death of Neda Soltan:

In the demonstrations that followed Iran’s presidential elections, grainy cell phone footage of a young woman’s bloody murder provided a digital indictment of the government’s brutality. We’ve seen reports that when Iranians living overseas posted online criticism of their nation’s leaders, their family members in Iran were singled out for retribution. And despite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening in their country. In speaking out on behalf of their own human rights the Iranian people have inspired the world.

And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice.

Clinton framed Internet freedom as a human rights issue, noting that the right to free expression and to receive information is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Article 19 of the Declaration states that all people “have right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Some in Congress Get Smart on Iran

Cross-posted from the HuffingtonPost:

For more than two decades now, US policy on Iran has depended almost entirely on sanctions. Even now, Congress is set to pass the latest in a long line of “crippling” pressures: a gasoline embargo that both Republicans and Democrats believe is unlikely to alter Iran’s behavior in the slightest, but which some hope will cause enough pain for the Iranian people that they will protest a little harder than they already are.

But the yardstick for an effective Iran policy is not how much pain and suffering it will cause among innocent Iranians. Rather, changing the policies and behavior of Tehran’s repressive government should be our ultimate goal. This means that when it comes to sanctions, bigger is not always better. If Washington wants to do something on Iran, it should first stop helping the Ahmadinejad government repress its people.

Luckily, there is a chance that things are about to change. Just as most of Congress is stuck in the narrow mindset of draconian sanctions, two new bills have been introduced that offer a new way forward on Iran. The Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), led by Rep. Keith Ellison, and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA), led by Rep. Jim Moran, both seek to redefine how Congress approaches the Iran issue, in favor of a smarter, more holistic strategy.

Tell Congress to Stand With the Iranian People!

For decades, Iranians have lived under the double burden of repression by their government and unintended hardship caused by US sanctions.  Even now, Congress is rushing to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), which will only contribute to the Iranian people’s suffering by seeking to restrict Iran’s supply of heating oil and gasoline.  Prominent members of Iran’s opposition movement, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, as well as human rights defenders like Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji, have all spoken out strongly against such sanctions that punish innocent Iranians.

Today, however, a group of Members of Congress are standing up to reverse this failed paradigm.  Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) has introduced the Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), and Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) has introduced the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA). Together, these unprecedented pieces of legislation will enable the US to genuinely support the Iranian people by removing unnecessary obstacles that have made their struggle for rights and freedom more difficult.

CLICK HERE TO TELL YOUR REPRESENTATIVES TO SUPPORT THESE HISTORIC BILLS!

(Click here for a summary of SWIPA – English Version, Persian Version)

(Click here for a summary of IDEA – English Version, Persian Version)

  • 14 December 2009
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 1 Comments
  • Congress, Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009, Sanctions

NIAC Applauds Proposal to Enable Iranians’ Online Activities

NIAC welcomes Congressional initiative to correct flawed Internet regulations

Contact: Phil Elwood
212.486.7091

For Immediate Release

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council welcomes today’s introduction of H.R.4301, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA) in the House of Representatives, and applauds the bill’s sponsors Representatives Representatives Jim Moran (D-VA), Bill Delahunt (D-MA), and Bob Inglis (R-SC).

NIAC President Trita Parsi welcomed the new proposal, calling it a “long overdue correction of one of the most glaringly self-defeating aspects” of US sanctions on Iran.  Due to ambiguities in current US sanctions law, companies and private citizens in the US are barred from sending software to the people of Iran, including important communication and anti-censorship tools that ensure the free flow of information.  The Iranian Digital Empowerment Act clarifies that US sanctions do not apply to software that enables the people of Iran to circumvent government monitors and censors as well as communications software and services.

(Click here for NIAC’s one page fact-sheet on IDEA)

“Sanctions alone are not going to alter the Iranian government’s behavior,” Parsi said, “but the last thing US laws should do is hinder the Iranian people’s ability to access information and communication tools online.” Recently, Microsoft and Google suspended certain instant messaging services in Iran, citing their obligations under US sanctions.  Facebook also considered cutting its service to Iran prior to the election, though ultimately decided against such a move, which would have deprived the Iranian people of a critical outlet for communicating post-election events to the outside world.  Still, current regulations are ambiguous about the legality of offering online services to Iran.

Representative Moran emphasized the importance of this legislation following its introduction: “Given the tectonic shifts in Iranian society following the fraudulent national election and emboldened democracy movement that rose from it, we need to move fast to make these sanctions smarter and more relevant to current technology,” he said.  “IDEA taks a smart approach to our existing sanctions policy by ensuring that Iranian fighting for change are strengthened–those at the front lines of the pro-democracy movement–and not the oppressive regime.”

  • 1 September 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 14 Comments
  • Congress, Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009, Sanctions

How US sanctions will doom Iran’s Twitter uprising

googleIran

ForeignPolicy.com has an amazing array of blogs, many of which we link to regularly here at niacINsight.  But one that somehow escaped our notice until today is Net Effect, run by Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian who is in the middle of writing a book about the impact of the Internet on global politics, with a particular focus on authoritarian states (hmm, sound relevant?).

Morozov has written a provocative piece on the unintended impact of comprehensive Iran sanctions and how they restrict the Iranian people’s ability to use the internet as a megaphone for political dissent–(something I think a lot of members of Congress would get behind these days).

Apparently, Google has prohibited their popular Google Ads service to users in Iran.  This is the service that promotes customized commercial sites and promotional offers based on website content. The service is a great way for web entrepreneurs to raise funds and maintain their operations.  And for many Iranians, the internet is the only (remotely) safe place to voice their dissent.

But apparently Google is worried that driving revenue to an Iranian website, even without any US connection, would get them in hot water:

Google doesn’t allow to target visitors from Iran (as well as Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) because of – you guessed it – the economic sanctions imposed by the US government. Now, this is something that I entirely cannot understand: how exactly would Google AdSense strengthen the Iranian regime? The Iranian state media doesn’t need to use Google Ads to generate its revenue: they are lavishly funded by the state.

The only people who suffer because of these sanctions are the Iranian Web entrepreneurs who are cut off from a guaranteed source of funding.

This truly gets to the heart of one of the most troubling aspects of what Congress’ Iran policy has grown into over the last two decades.  Rather than prohibiting activities that directly benefit the Iranian government, lawmakers have decided to close off the whole of Iranian society, thinking that the only thing that matters is to maximize the amount of discomfort imposed on Tehran.  But unfortunately this overlooks the countless potential opportunities for helping the Iranian people, that also provide absolutely zero assistance to the government.  Google Ads, according to Morozov, would be one of those areas:

[T]here is no need to fear that the Basijis would usurp this space. There are plenty of extremists outside of Iran and Google has learnt how to identify and deal with them; why would they fail to reign the Basijis? If they create content which doesn’t fit Google’s policies, let Google deal with them instead of simply shutting the online advertising option to Iranians.

This is an issue that we have been looking into very closely this summer, and we hope it will be given more attention. Congress needs to wise up on its Iran policy, and take the time to separate the Iranian people, whom they claim to support and admire, from their government.

In the meantime, for everyone who has been discouraged at not being able to help the Iranian people in their struggle for change this summer, here’s a message that you should send to your representatives in Washington: Stop keeping me from helping Iranians, and get out of my way!

  • 14 August 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran

U.S. tests technology to break foreign Web censorship

From Reuters:

BOSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is covertly testing technology in China and Iran that lets residents break through screens set up by their governments to limit access to news on the Internet.

The “feed over email” (FOE) system delivers news, podcasts and data via technology that evades web-screening protocols of restrictive regimes, said Ken Berman, head of IT at the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is testing the system.

The news feeds are sent through email accounts including those operated by Google Inc, Microsoft Corp’s Hotmail and Yahoo Inc.

“We have people testing it in China and Iran,” said Berman, whose agency runs Voice of America. He provided few details on the new system, which is in the early stages of testing. He said some secrecy was important to avoid detection by the two governments.

…The U.S. government also offers a free service that allows overseas users to access virtually any site on the Internet, including those opposing the United States.

“We don’t make any political statement about what people visit,” Berman said. “We are trying to impart the value: ‘The more you know, the better.’ People can look for themselves.”

Sign the Petition

 

7,349 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.

Sincerely,

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