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Iran Cyber-Repression Brings U.S. Sanctions on Officials

The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and government bodies for their role in blocking Internet access, mobile-phone lines and satellite television channels to stifle freedom of speech.

Reza Taghipour, the country’s minister of communications and information technology, tops a blacklist that includes the head of the Iranian police, Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, who in September 2009 created a cyber-police unit that has blocked foreign websites and social networks, the U.S. Treasury Department said yesterday in a statement.

Also designated is Ali Fazli, deputy commander of the Basij militia, which the U.S. says has launched attacks against websites, including those of foreign news outlets, and has violently broken up peaceful protests.

Among the entities censured are the Press Supervisory Board, which controls publication licensing, and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which the U.S. says has been involved in arresting and detaining more than 150 journalists since the June 2009 presidential election in Iran.

“Today’s designations further demonstrate our resolve to put a stop to the Iranian regime’s continued efforts to deny the Iranian people access to information and the ability to speak freely,” David Cohen, the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the statement.

The action comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s re-election and is an indication of the administration’s determination to keep the pressure on the Islamic regime suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons.

‘Malign Use’

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said yesterday’s initiatives are meant to underscore the role that government restrictions on technology play in crushing dissent.

Internet social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become vital for activists, as the so-called Arab Spring uprisings demonstrated. The U.S. has stepped up efforts to stop regimes such as Iran and Syria from blocking such access through what Obama has called the “malign use of technology.”

The Internet-related sanctions were imposed by the Treasury Department under an executive order signed in October by Obama. The president also signed an executive order in April authorizing sanctions against individuals and entities that provide information technology that aid regimes in cracking down on dissidents.

The message is “if you sell technology to Iran you are selling to the Revolutionary Guard Corps,” said Dubowitz.

Equipment Sales

A Bloomberg News investigation last year exposed Western companies’ sales of surveillance systems to repressive governments, including Iran and Syria. In Iran, European companies provided or marketed gear to track citizens’ locations and communications that law enforcement or state security agencies would have access to, the investigation showed.

Several Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, purchased surveillance technology from a chain of businesses that had been a Siemens AG unit, the Bloomberg probe showed. In Bahrain, transcripts from such gear were used in brutal interrogations, Bloomberg reported in August 2011.

In Syria, an Italian company, Area SpA, was building a system to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country, Bloomberg reported in November 2011. Following the disclosure, Area said it was exiting the deal. The system included components from German and French firms, as well as two U.S. companies, California-based NetApp Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. In December, the European Union barred exports of surveillance technology to Syria.

Web Filters

In the latest U.S. action, the Treasury Department also sanctioned Rasool Jalili for alleged efforts to acquire equipment for monitoring text-messaging traffic from abroad.

As of early July 2012, Jalili was actively assisting the Iranian government’s Internet censorship activities and was involved in blocking Iranian citizens’ Internet access to Facebook Inc.’s social network, EBay Inc.’s online auction site, and Google Inc.’s YouTube, in addition to other websites, according to the Treasury’s statement.

He also assisted in blocking any website that contained content criticizing the Iranian government such as independent and international newspapers, blogs, and activist sites, according to the statement. Jalili’s company, AmnAfzar Gostar-e Sharif, provided Internet censorship and filtering software to the government, the U.S. said.

Many Internet service providers in Iran “use an integrated software and hardware system known as Separ, produced by AmnAfzar, which can monitor web traffic and block political websites and Internet communications,” according to the U.S. Treasury.

Jamming Satellite TV

The Treasury Department statement identified Taghipour, the communications minister, as “one of the leading Iranian officials” in charge of censorship and control of Internet activities. He has been responsible for the blocking of mobile-phone lines and text messaging, jamming of satellite television channels, and local suspension of Internet connectivity in the wake of the June 2009 elections, according to the statement.

Under the sanctions, any property or interests in property in the U.S. or in the possession or control of U.S. persons in which the designated entities or individuals have an interest are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them, the Treasury said.

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