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Amid protests, US moves to boost Iranians' access to Internet, digital comms
The Iranian government “cut off access to the internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them and the rest of the world from watching its violent crackdown," State Dept said.
As Iranian protests over the death of Mahsa Amini entered their eighth day and amid a stalemate in the nuclear talks, the United States announced measures to allow US companies to give Iranian people access to technology they can use to communicate and counter censorship and surveillance amid a government Internet shutdown.
“We took action today to advance Internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people, issuing a General License to provide them greater access to digital communications to counter Iranian government censorship,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced.
The fact that the nuclear deal revival talks are stuck may make the U.S. administration feel less reluctant to lean into support for the protesters, more than might have been the case if American officials had felt they were on the verge of a deal that such actions might jeopardize.
The State Department said the Iranian government on Wednesday moved to shut down Internet access, as protests over the death of the 22 year old Iranian woman following her arrest by Iran’s morality police allegedly over improper hair covering swept the country and authorities prepared to crack down.
“Mahsa Amini is senselessly and tragically dead, and now the Government of Iran, rather than responding to the peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss by addressing the fundamental problems that led to it, is simply violently suppressing protests,” a senior State Department official told journalists on a background call Friday (Sept. 23) about the new measures.
The Iranian government “cut off access to the internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them and the rest of the world from watching its violent crackdown,” the State Department official said.
The Treasury Department issued a so called general license D-2 “that allows U.S. companies to provide tools to ordinary Iranians and assist in their efforts to resist repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools,” a senior Treasury Department official said on the background call.
The Treasury official said the general license D-2 “most importantly…expands the access of cloud-based services. Why is this key? It’s because today so many VPNs and other sort of anti-surveillance tools are delivered via cloud.”
The license issued Friday also removes the “limitation that the authorized services be connected to personal communication,” the Treasury official said, noting that many current communication functions are from technology products devised as “social media platforms, collaboration platforms, conferencing, games, …mapping tools.”
In a separate action, inventor and businessman Elon Musk wrote on Twitter Friday that he was activating the Starlink for Iran, although it was not clear whether the hardware terminals needed to provide Internet service for Iran were in place or could be positioned for that to happen.
The actions to try to boost Iranians’ ability to communicate came as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi returned to Iran from New York, where he had joined other world leaders to address the opening session of the UN General Assembly.
US official: We’ve hit a wall
American officials said despite the presence of the Iranian delegation in New York, there had been no progress over the past week to close gaps to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“We've hit a wall because of Iran's position,” a second US diplomat told journalists in New York Thursday.
Iran in its latest response on a draft agreement to revive the nuclear deal asked for a “date certain by which we and the Europeans would agree that these issues have been closed,” the US official said, referring to Iran’s request that a probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into uranium particles found at a couple sites be closed before it would agree to revive the nuclear pact.
“They’ve said they want these issues to be swept under the carpet,” the U.S. official said. “We won’t do that. So that’s their position. It’s not clear what there is to discuss.”
“If they’re prepared to have a more realistic position, then it would be a possibility to resume more active engagement,” he added.
US: Iranian leadership “hasn’t been able to reach” decision
The American diplomat said Iranian officials do not seem to have reached internal consensus on what decision they want to make on whether or not to revive the deal.
“At some level, the most important negotiation is not between the US and Iran, but between Iran and itself, because it does seem like it’s a leadership that hasn’t been able to reach the fundamental decision, are they prepared to go back into the deal, knowing what the deal is,” the US official said. “There’s still debate going on, and it hasn’t at bottom…been resolved by those who need to resolve it.”
Raisi on Thursday said Iran distrusts that the UN atomic watchdog will ever stop finding new reasons to investigate Iran.
“If we are going to be faced with a situation where the files remain open on an ongoing basis, so we are back to square one,” he said at a media event in New York Thursday. “We don’t want a repeat of the bitter experience of the past.”
American officials said those fears are not warranted.
“The IAEA is not asking for a confession,” the senior State Department official said Thursday. “They're asking for an explanation. … Mainly what they want to know is where's the uranium today so that they could account for it and say that it's all under safeguards. Right now, they can't do it, because there's some unexplained presence that they can't account for.”
Meantime, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Iranian authorities to avoid excessive force in responding to the protests, his spokesman said.
"We are concerned about reports of peaceful protests being met with excessive use of force leading to dozens of deaths and injuries," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York Friday, Reuters reported. "We further call on the authorities to respect the right to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association."
At least eleven journalists have been arrested in Iran amid the protests, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. They include foreign policy reporter Ruhollah Nakhaee, and Shargh Daily reporter Niloofar Hamedi, who was among the first journalists to report on Mahsa Amini’s hospitalization.
“Having stymied reform for years, the Iranian leadership has turned the country into a tinderbox,” the International Crisis Group said in an appeal to Iran’s leaders to call off their repression Friday. “Over time, it will continue to render Iran increasingly vulnerable to the civil strife.”
Asked about the protests, an externally based Iranian journalist said it is difficult to predict, but they’re not slowing down yet. He said he feared with Raisi’s return from the world stage in New York, that authorities might ramp up indiscriminate violence against the protesters, since they’re now “less worried about the optics.”
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