American Internet companies are said to be supporting Iranian demonstrators in their fight against the government. In response to the ongoing protests against the theocratic system, the Iranian authorities have repeatedly blocked access to the Internet, especially for mobile short message services such as WhatsApp and Instagram.
This is intended to make it more difficult for the protest movement to organize rallies and publish images of violent operations by the security forces. Now the US is easing its Internet sanctions against Iran to help the demonstrators bypass the network blockade. Experiences from the Ukraine war serve as a model.
At the center of the US initiative against the Islamic Republic is Tesla founder and billionaire Elon Musk. His company, Starlink, has more than 2,000 satellites in space designed to secure Internet access anywhere in the world.
American sanctions have so far kept US internet companies out of Iran. Washington has now decided that the companies should be allowed to offer the Iranians modern software for circumventing Internet bans, as well as tools for video conferencing, cloud technology for secure data storage and satellite-based Internet.
Washington also removed a requirement that Internet service providers had to prove that their services in Iran were only being used for personal – and not government – purposes. Musk, who had called for the relaxation of internet sanctions, responded on Twitter by announcing: “Activate Starlink.”
Millions of Iranians have been protesting against their state for ten days because a 22-year-old died after being arrested by the religious police during a headscarf check. President Ebrahim Raisi announced that the state would take decisive action against the protests. According to Iranian human rights activists, more than 50 people have been killed in clashes so far.
Elon Musk already operates satellites. It should soon be 42,000.
The internet plays a crucial role in the protests in the country of 80 million. Two out of three Iranians use social media and especially WhatsApp and Instagram. In the past few days, the authorities have throttled Internet access several times.
In the Ukraine war, the use of American Internet services could change something. After the war began in February, Musk sent thousands of Starlink satellite receivers to Ukraine, countering attempts by Russia to disrupt the Internet in Ukraine. According to media reports, Ukrainian soldiers at the front use the satellite service to communicate with their commanders. Musk and the US government paid for the devices – which retail for around €500 each – and the fee of around €100 a month per user.
Iranian government’s response to the easing of internet sanctions against the country
It is not certain that the example can be repeated in Iran. The newspaper “Shargh”, a medium of the Iranian reformers, reported over the weekend that it now has an access point for Starlink in more than three dozen locations in Iran. However, it is unclear how and how quickly the satellite dishes for Starlink can be smuggled into Iran and who is paying for the use.
In addition, Starlink only works with ground stations that are no more than a thousand kilometers away from a user. Omid Rezaee, an Iranian journalist based in Germany, said Starlink will therefore not help the protesters during the current wave of protests. It is also uncertain whether American software can support the protest movement. Rezaee said he expects an effect at best in the medium to long term.
Nonetheless, Tehran is clearly concerned. The Iranian government, which usually complains about American sanctions, reacted angrily to the easing of internet sanctions: It was “disgraceful”.
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