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U.S. Announces Measures To Fight Tehran's 'Electronic Curtain'


U.S. President Barack Obama greets Iranians on Norouz on March 20.
Amid tightening U.S. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear activities, President Barack Obama has announced measures aimed at facilitating the Iranian public's access to electronic information.

Obama made the announcement in his annual Nowruz video message, which was transmitted in Farsi as well as English.

"Today, my administration is issuing new guidelines to make it easier for American businesses to provide software and services into Iran that will make it easier for the Iranian people to use the Internet," he said.

Obama said the United States "seeks a dialogue" with the Iranian people and called on Tehran to stop blocking its citizens' access to information.

He accused the Iranian government of imposing an "electronic curtain" on its citizens.

Digital Overture To Iranian Public

The statements coincided with the release by the U.S. Treasury Department of new details about what services and software may be exported to Iran.

The Treasury Department said the aim was to ensure that sanctions against Iran do not have an "unintended chilling effect" on the ability of companies to provide Iranians with communications tools.

"It is essential that people have the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information through a variety of mediums, including the Internet," it added.

The U.S. Treasury Department first approved software-related communication products for export to Iran in March 2010.

Under the guidelines, products explicitly allowed include personal communication software like Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and Skype; personal data storage like Dropbox; browsers like Google Chrome; plug-ins like Flash Player; document readers; RSS-feed readers; and free mobile applications related to personal communications.

Jamal Abdi, the research director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), said the new guidance could encourage more companies to allow their services to be available to citizens in Iran.

"It has this statement of favorable licensing policy, so even the software that is not exempt completely from sanctions," Abdi said. "There's certain software that the U.S. government would like for these companies to be able to offer, but they have to get a special license in order to do that. And this is a statement saying, 'If you apply for this license, you'll get it,' essentially. "

Abdi said the United States needs to make sure sanctions are not adding to the iron curtain of Internet censorship.

"What we first of all need to do is to stop erring on the side of restriction and just grant a general license for all of these -- software, hardware, and services, including satellite Internet," Abdi said. "That's a very important one and, unfortunately, if you're a satellite Internet provider, you have to go to a licensing process that is pretty arduous. So you have the satellite above Iran that could provide Internet and they're not because they haven't gone through that process."

The new U.S. guidelines come amid reports that Iran is making new efforts to tighten control of the Internet, including the launch of a so-called national internet that could further limit Iranians' access to the World Wide Web.

U.S. Announces Sanctions Exemptions

The United States meanwhile said it was granting an exemption to 10 European Union members and Japan from enforcing new sanctions on Iran, saying they were reducing dependency on Iran’s oil, according to a statement on the State Department website.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said those countries' financial institutions would be exempt for a renewable 180-day period from sanctions that would have penalized them over purchases of Iranian oil. Clinton urged other nations that import oil from Iran to follow their example.

She said she would inform the U.S. Congress of the decision.

Under a tough new law aimed at pressing Iran over its sensitive nuclear activities, the United States plans to penalize foreign financial institutions that deal with Iran's central bank, which generally handles oil purchases.

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