The Messy US Influence That’s Helping Iranians Stay Online

Digital rights activists working outside the country to support Iran say the US government’s support of circumvention tools has been valuable.

“It’s certainly true that they are by far providing the highest amount of support for the main VPNs used in Iran,” says Reza Ghazinouri, a strategic adviser at United for Iran, a San Francisco–based human rights and civil liberties group.

But some have reservations about the strategies the US government has used to promote internet freedom in Iran. Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at the Iran-focused human rights organization Miaan Group, says he has concerns about the sanctions against Arvan Cloud because he worries that cracking down on key digital services in Iran simply adds more restrictions.

“In any place, if you go after infrastructure, even if they’re controlled by the government, sanctioning an electric company or a gas company, that’s not going to help anyone,” Rashidi says. “If you sanction internet infrastructure, you’re just making the Iranian government’s job a lot easier.

Rashidi notes, too, that while he is not surprised that a company like Arvan has close ties to the Iranian regime, he wishes the US government would provide more detailed evidence for why it singled out this tech company to be sanctioned over any other in Iran. He points out that Arvan is seemingly the only Iranian tech company that publishes an annual transparency report of any sort—even if it is often not particularly illuminating. 

In July 2021, Arvan also publicly joined other Iranian tech companies and digital rights activists in opposing restrictive legislation the regime was promoting under the guise of a “user protection” bill. And on Tuesday, the company’s CEO, Pouya Pirhosseinloo, one of the executives named in the US Treasury sanctions on Friday, published an essay calling for expanded internet freedom within Iran.

Pirhosseinloo wrote that Iran should be focused on “removing filtering and extensive internet disruptions” as well as “removing any kind of disruptions and restrictions on internet protocols in the name of dealing with VPNs.” And he concluded by calling for a massive overhaul of Iran’s approach to internet freedom.

“We should accept that Iran should be taken out of global isolation, sanctions, and hope should be restored to the body of Iranian society by removing internal sanctions,” Pirhosseinloo wrote. “Such a path will not begin until life is restored through the freedom of the Internet and the removal of its widespread disturbances and restrictions. Return to the roots of the digital economy.”

Iran’s digital landscape is complicated, and efforts to influence the Iranian regime are never straightforward.

“I’m not saying these people are fantastic, but they were outspoken against the Iranian government’s plans,” Rashidi says. “Maybe the US government has information I don’t have, but I’d like to see more evidence to back up the claim.”

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