Iran iPhones Show the Trouble With Sanctions

What’s to account for the mini-trend in news coverage in recent weeks of pieces that invoke the Islamic Republic of Iran and your favorite must-have consumer electronics? Witness pieces such as CNN’s “What the Samsung Galaxy has to do with Iran’s Nukes?” and Reuters’ “Despite sanctions, Apple gear booms in Iran.”

The title presented in the URL for CNN’s piece, “Iranian Sanctions Lots of Bark Not Enough Bite,” certainly tells part of the story. These pieces ostensibly seek to address the effectiveness of sanctions imposed on the country by the United States and its allies as part of a “dual-track” strategy that has been the key concept guiding U.S. policy towards Iran since at least 2010, after a proposed fuel-swap deal intended to build confidence between Iran and the U.S. and its allies fell through, (a good account of which is available here).

Under the “dual-track” strategy, the U.S. and its allies seek resolution of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program by diplomatic means while simultaneously putting pressure on the country via sanctions. While Iran claims that the development of nuclear energy is solely for peaceful domestic usage, other members of the international community, including the U.S. and Israel, suspect Iran is actually developing nuclear weapons capabilities. As no diplomatic resolution has been achieved, since 2010 sanctions have accumulated in number and impact: In 2010 Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which established that Iranian goods or services are not to be imported unless gifts valued $100 or less, and that U.S. citizens may not export goods or services to Iran of over $100 in value. These then were followed in 2011 by further U.S. sanctions aimed at punishing companies that provide support to Iran’s oil and chemical industry, and groups that do business with Iranian financial institutions, as well as UN sanctions freezing Iranian assets, and the more recent European Union measures including an embargo on Iranian oil products. 

But, as Reuters’ reporting on Apple products in Iran indicates, the sanctions designed to prevent such products from being sold in the country have been in effect for years. In 1995, President Clinton signed into effect Executive Order 12959, which forbid investment in Iran and banned the exportation of any goods or technology from the United States. 

So if such sanctions are not exactly new, and certainly predate the dual-track strategy, then one has to wonder if there isn't something more to the "story" behind the recent spate of articles - if, perhaps, they might be seen as part of a trend in coverage going back to the "Behind the Veil" Daily Show segment from 2009, and perhaps most recently captured in an article by Nicholas Kristof whose title says it all: "In Iran, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun." The “story,” satirized in the piece "In America, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun," is that Iranians, the young especially, are not the “dour religious fanatics” Kristof describes as a popular Western misconception, but rather cosmopolitan, technologically connected, and very brand conscious consumers. 

Wasn’t that, for many anyway, the great revelation of the fallout after the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, when it seemed no Western commentator with an ounce of influence could tire of writing about how the camera-phone toting, tweeting Iranian youth of the green movement were bringing democracy and accountability to their country? This view even appears to be incorporated into the substance of the Obama administration’s sanctions policy, which this year also included sanctions of companies that provide assistance to the Iranian and Syrian governments' efforts to track and disrupt the efforts of such digital activists. 

So, if smartphones and laptops are seen as vital enough tools to Iranians' struggle for greater freedoms that companies aiding in a digital crackdown should be sanctioned, how is it that these same technologies are to be banned from being sold in Iran? The apparent contradiction raises the question CNN's piece does not, without which it is difficult to determine the meaning of a phrase like "effectiveness of sanctions." Is there an ultimate aim unifying the manifold sanctions that have accumulated against Iran, and if so, what is it?