US targets ‘villainous’ censorship of Iranians

The Obama administration on Thursday issued a series of orders designed to promote free speech in Iran and punish those responsible for silencing the nation’s people.

A measure to equip the Iranian citizenry with communications technology, sanctions and new visa restrictions against dozens of Iranians is part of a broader effort to "crack down" on government censorship and "empower" Iran’s people.

“As we look back, there’s been an increasing trend in their efforts to act in new and more complex and villainous ways to crack down on the free flow of inside the country,” a senior administration official said of those targeted Thursday.

The centerpiece of the initiative is the issuance of a General License expressly permitting exports to Iran of laptops, cellphones, Internet service, software and products that could better connect the country’s people to one another and the rest of the world. It also includes anti-virus software and other products that could help the Iranian people counter government hacking, the official said.

The license stops short of authorizing the exportation of satellite links or other commercial-grade Internet connectivity services or transmission facilities. It prohibits exports intended for the government of Iran or officials designated for sanctions.

The measure is the third and most aggressive licensing step in recent years devised to promote free speech in Iran.

“This General License will empower the Iranian people at a time when their government is steadily intensifying its efforts to stifle their access to one another and to outside information,” a second senior administration official told reporters.

The State Department also imposed new visa restrictions on nearly 60 Iranian government officials alleged to have participated in human rights abuses related to political repression. Among them are government ministers, military and law enforcement personnel, and other authorities in the country.

The action, which revokes any existing visas and blocks those named from getting new ones, brings the total number of restricted Iranians to more than 100.

The Treasury Department also leveled new sanctions against Iran’s Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, the government entity charged with filtering the flow of information to the Iranian people, as well Asghar Mir-Hejazi, the deputy chief of staff to the supreme leader.

“He’s been very active behind the scenes in empowering elements from Iran’s intelligence and security services in ordering and carrying out violent crackdowns against dissidents and the Iranian people,” the first administration official said of Mir-Heiazi.

Under the sanctions, any assets in U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Mir-Heiazi or the committee are frozen, and Americans are prohibited from doing business with them.

The actions come as Iran is nearing a pivotal presidential election and on the same day as an Iranian-American with direct ties to the Iranian government was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his part in a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.