Obama Lifts Sanctions, Iranians Win, Regime Loses

This morning, President Obama did the unthinkable. He lifted sanctions on Iran. No, we're not talking about sanctions that some say should be lifted in exchange Iranian nuclear concessions. He lifted these sanctions unilaterally. We're talking about sanctions that actually prevented ordinary Iranians from accessing the Internet and communicating via text message.

Until today, it was illegal under U.S. law to allow Iranians to download apps or access certain websites, to purchase modems, laptops or cell phones, or to obtain anti-virus software or use Virtual Private Networks to protect them from their own government's cyber repression.

That being said, Iranians were still doing this. Iran has among the most tech-savvy populations in the world. For years, young Iranians have been running circles around their government's repression and have been some of the most active and engaged bloggers and social media users. This was on display most strikingly during the Green Movement demonstrations of 2009, when Iranians took to the streets by the millions to protest the supposed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While talk at the time of a "Twitter revolution" was seriously overblown, we have seen the power of communication technology in shaping social movements around the world, and Iran's Green Movement was among the first. There can be no mistaking that text messaging and social media played an important role in helping organize and spread the word about those protests and that cell phone videos and YouTube helped shine a spotlight on the brutal reprisals of the Iranian government and galvanized world public attention.

Unbeknownst to many at the time, those cell phone videos and social media conversations were all largely happening in spite of U.S. sanctions. Everything from the cell phones to the basic consumer software and hardware that Iranians were using were all technically blocked by byzantine U.S. sanctions that have been in place since 1992--when accessing the Internet usually started with an AOL floppy disk. Thankfully, Iranians were able to rely on the black market and the tech savvy to obtain U.S.-blocked hardware and software in order to access information and utilize new technologies to communicate freely.

But as of late, the Iranian government has stepped up its cyber repression, including by establishing a "cyber army" within the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The tools that ordinary Iranians have used to get around the restrictions of their own government and of U.S. sanctions have not been as effective. Iran's government has clamped down after learning from the events of 2009. Which is why it is so welcome that the U.S. government has also apparently learned the lesson and ended the sanctions that helped stand in Iranians' way.

There remains much to be done. Private companies must now be encouraged to make their software and hardware goods available to Iranians. And even as communications sanctions are lifted, the past four years has seen a massive influx of new sanctions that are also isolating and undermining Iran's people. Serious work must be done to address medicine shortages that are being caused by the breadth and over enforcement of financial sanctions. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, when announcing the communications sanctions decision, made clear that the U.S. was concerned about the humanitarian issue and was stepping up efforts to clear financial channels for food and medicine transactions. Those who worked to lift communications sanctions must redouble their efforts to now work with the Administration to lift medicine sanctions.

But as Iran approaches another presidential election on June 14, and as Iran's government steps up its efforts to silence and impede free expression, the people of Iran will know that -- at least when it comes to access to communications tools -- the U.S. government will no longer be standing in their way.