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Another Bite Of The Apple? Tech Giant's App Store Goes Dark For Iranians

Iranians hungry for the latest in Western gadgetry got an abrupt shock on March 15 when they were unable to access a key distribution platform for Apple-friendly software.

Famously tech-savvy through decades of government efforts to shield the citizenry from outside news and cultural influences, Iranians who tried to visit the App Store were greeted with the message: "The App Store is unavailable in the country or region you're in."

Many users reported that the App Store was available again the next morning.

There are thought to be millions of iPhones in Iran, where around two-thirds of the country's 80 million people have a smartphone and smuggled iPhones pour into the country.

The disruption comes months after Apple removed Iranian business apps in August, citing U.S. sanctions. Forbes contributor Tim Worstall noted at the time that "unless you're going to jailbreak an iPhone the only way you can get an app onto an iPhone is to get it from the iStore."

So some Iranians took to Twitter to share news of the App Store problem and post screen grabs like this:

An Iranian security researcher was quoted by Bleeping Computer, which broke the news, as saying that after around noon on March 15 Iranians could only get onto the App Store via a so-called virtual private network (VPN) to hide their location. Iranians frequently employ VPNs to circumvent official blocks on a wide array of social media and digital platforms.

The circumstances behind the access problem and its apparent resolution the next day were unclear, and Apple did not respond to an e-mail inquiry by RFE/RL.

And despite their collective experience with VPNs, some Iranians greeted the news with frustration.

"As someone who's used Apple for years, I'm very upset that Iran has been [blocked] in the #Appstore and I'm thinking about using cellphones from a company that doesn't insult the people of my country," Tehran-based journalist Farzaneh Taherzadeh tweeted on March 15.

The interruption led to speculation that the global tech giant had decided permanently to block Iranians from accessing its virtual store due to U.S. sanctions.

"It’s not clear what prompted the change, but it presumably goes back to US sanctions on Iran, which President Trump amped up last year," Jacob Kastrenakes wrote on The Verge, which covers the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture.

Customers at the opening of an official Apple store in Tehran in October 2014.
Customers at the opening of an official Apple store in Tehran in October 2014.

"Should the ban be permanent, owners of iOS devices in Iran will have to route their internet traffic through VPNs, making it appear that they’re in another country, in order to access the App Store going forward. That’ll make it much harder to use Apple’s devices,” the report added.

The same Iranian researcher who initially identified the block wrote on March 16 that Iranians "can again access AppStore without any problem."

Two users in Tehran contacted by RFE/RL said they were able to connect to the App Store, but another said her efforts were met with an error message. She said she was only able to connect through a VPN.

Apple is not officially represented in Iran due to U.S. sanctions.

Apple's cutoff in August left users without access to apps for hailing rides, ordering takeout, and other services.

"Under the U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries," Apple told Iranian developers who were affected by that ban.

The move angered many who, under the hashtag #StopRemovingIranianApps, called on Apple to end the ban.

Iran's communications minister, Mohammad Javad Azori Jahromi, tweeted in August that "11 percent of the cellphone market in Iran belongs to Apple," adding that Iran would "legally pursue the elimination of apps" for Iranians.

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