EletiofeThe Messy US Influence That’s Helping Iranians Stay Online

The Messy US Influence That’s Helping Iranians Stay Online

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The United States Treasury announced on Friday that it is sanctioning the Iranian technology company Arvan Cloud, along with two senior employees of the company and an affiliated firm based in the United Arab Emirates. Officials from both the Treasury and the US State Department said on Friday that the company has close ties to Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Ministry and plays a key role in providing infrastructure for the regime’s surveillance activities and restrictive intranet known as the National Information Network (NIN).

US sanctions against Iran are extensive, and the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has issued a number of sanctions specifically related to the Iranian government’s long-standing attacks on internet freedom and digital access within the country. The full scope of US sanctions against Iran have already significantly isolated the country’s economy, and its government’s own internet shutdowns, digital blocking, and censorship have only further fueled financial hardship. But a US government official told WIRED on Friday that the Biden administration has seen consistent evidence that naming and shaming regime collaborators stifles an impacted company’s ability to recruit top talent within the country.

“Today is a very bad day for anyone who has Arvan Cloud listed on their résumé,” said the official, who spoke to WIRED on the condition that they not be named. “We really do see Iran as an epicenter in the global struggle over the free flow of information. You’re at a tipping point between a bifurcated series of intranets and a global internet.”

The Iranian regime faced months of mass protests after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” in September while being held for allegedly violating rules about wearing hijab. Ever since, the government has continued to expand its NIN national intranet and tighten digital restrictions and censorship.

Many Iranians still maintain access to the global internet, though, through circumvention tools like VPNs and other relay technologies. The Biden administration has specifically invested in recent years to help private companies that create circumvention tools tailor them for Iran and keep them running. This fits into a broader US policy. Since 2008, for example, the State Department has invested more than $320 million of congressionally directed funding toward global internet freedom programs, technology, and digital access research. The US Treasury also announced a special license in September, known as Iran General License D-2, that allows private companies to develop and offer digital services to Iranians without violating sanctions.

A senior government official, who also spoke on background, told WIRED that at some points since the regime escalated its internet disruptions in September, 30 million Iranians—nearly one in three—were using US-supported anti-censorship tools. And the official said that usage by millions or tens of millions of Iranians is still common currently.

Developing and maintaining circumvention tools is a cat-and-mouse game in Iran and in any country that restricts digital freedom, because regimes are always looking for technological solutions to block loopholes. 

“We’ve seen that the regime has taken unprecedented steps to disrupt the internet and disrupt people’s access to the internet,” the senior official told WIRED. “Everyone has to assume that the regime is doing everything it can to crack down on these types of tools.”

Digital rights activists working outside the country to support Iran say the US government’s support of circumvention tools has been valuable.

“It’s certainly true that they are by far providing the highest amount of support for the main VPNs used in Iran,” says Reza Ghazinouri, a strategic adviser at United for Iran, a San Francisco–based human rights and civil liberties group.

But some have reservations about the strategies the US government has used to promote internet freedom in Iran. Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at the Iran-focused human rights organization Miaan Group, says he has concerns about the sanctions against Arvan Cloud because he worries that cracking down on key digital services in Iran simply adds more restrictions.

“In any place, if you go after infrastructure, even if they’re controlled by the government, sanctioning an electric company or a gas company, that’s not going to help anyone,” Rashidi says. “If you sanction internet infrastructure, you’re just making the Iranian government’s job a lot easier.

Rashidi notes, too, that while he is not surprised that a company like Arvan has close ties to the Iranian regime, he wishes the US government would provide more detailed evidence for why it singled out this tech company to be sanctioned over any other in Iran. He points out that Arvan is seemingly the only Iranian tech company that publishes an annual transparency report of any sort—even if it is often not particularly illuminating. 

In July 2021, Arvan also publicly joined other Iranian tech companies and digital rights activists in opposing restrictive legislation the regime was promoting under the guise of a “user protection” bill. And on Tuesday, the company’s CEO, Pouya Pirhosseinloo, one of the executives named in the US Treasury sanctions on Friday, published an essay calling for expanded internet freedom within Iran.

Pirhosseinloo wrote that Iran should be focused on “removing filtering and extensive internet disruptions” as well as “removing any kind of disruptions and restrictions on internet protocols in the name of dealing with VPNs.” And he concluded by calling for a massive overhaul of Iran’s approach to internet freedom.

“We should accept that Iran should be taken out of global isolation, sanctions, and hope should be restored to the body of Iranian society by removing internal sanctions,” Pirhosseinloo wrote. “Such a path will not begin until life is restored through the freedom of the Internet and the removal of its widespread disturbances and restrictions. Return to the roots of the digital economy.”

Iran’s digital landscape is complicated, and efforts to influence the Iranian regime are never straightforward.

“I’m not saying these people are fantastic, but they were outspoken against the Iranian government’s plans,” Rashidi says. “Maybe the US government has information I don’t have, but I’d like to see more evidence to back up the claim.”

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