The US has lifted sanctions on selling communications equipment and Internet access to Iranians, in a bid to help the people circumvent a regime crackdown. But some critics are skeptical of so-called "smart sanctions."
It is, the United States claimed, just a coincidence that the Iranian election is coming up. On Thursday (30.05.2013), Barack Obama's administration attempted to replace some of its blunt, sweeping sanctions against Iran with a more sophisticated policy - lifting a ban on sales of telecommunications equipment to Iranians and opening access to Internet services and social media. The move was designed to help the Iranian people circumvent a recent government crackdown on civil liberties in the run-up to the presidential election on June 14.
The decision immediately opened the gates for US companies to sell computers, tablets, mobile phones, software, and satellite receivers to Iranians - for personal use only. The US also lifted bans on the sale and free provision of Internet communications like instant messaging, chat, email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing and blogging, all of which had been tightly restricted before.
The move came only a week after the announcement of the approved presidential candidates showed that the ballot will be dominated by conservatives from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni's circle of allies. But a senior US government official told news agency AFP that the timing was not directly related to the election. "This is a response to their efforts to deprive their citizens of their rights... The timing is really driven by the continued crackdown within Iran," the official said.
Meanwhile, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki claimed the US move would allow Iranians to exercise "the right to freedom of expression" and skirt the government's "attempts to silence its people." Iranians, she said in a statement, will be able to get "safer, more sophisticated personal communications equipment" to communicate with each other and the outside world.
But come critics were less than impressed. "There is no such thing as smart sanctions," Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, reader in International Relations at the University of London, told DW. "Sanctions without a diplomatic context do not engender the intended political change."
Adib-Moghaddam, author of the book "Iran in World Politics," thinks there is only one way the US can successfully alter Iran. "Iran has been sanctioned for over three decades and hasn't changed in policy terms," he said. "There needs to be a concerted effort to implement a diplomatic track; that is the only way to engage and affect Iran's leadership."
"Cuba has been under US sanctions for over five decades and the country has retained its ideological stance," he pointed out.
But Meir Javedanfar, Iranian politics lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel, thinks that is the wrong comparison to make. "With the sanctions against the Iranian regime we're not trying to change the ideology. We're trying to change their nuclear policy, a policy that is based very much on economic interests. I think this is a long-term process, and we've already seen that the regime is making some changes. For example, they've started converting some of their uranium enrichment to nuclear fuel, which means temporarily bringing it beyond use for military purposes."
The US said it hopes that the move will also allow Iranians to protect themselves from cyberattacks by people working for the Tehran regime. But Adib-Moghaddam is skeptical of this, too. "Iranians are avid bloggers and consumers of world news, and sanctions have not changed this. Hence, the move is likely to have a negligible impact on the ground," he said. "Research has shown that they hurt the civil society of the target country rather than the state."
Javedanfar takes a more positive view, though. "I don't think it's going to be a ground-changing impact, but if it makes it easier for people in Iran to know what's happening in the outside world, and to communicate between each other, and if the American government is helping them get this freedom, I think it's very positive," he said. "I think Obama is doing a good job."
Of course, the measure is also designed to wrong-foot Iran's regime under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - here too, Javedanfar argues that the US can point to some success. "I think the Iranian regime's behavior toward its people creates opportunities for the West," he said. "It is leaving the field wide open for the West to come and improve its image with the people of Iran."
The purpose of the sanctions is not to change Iran's ideology, but to stop its nuclear program, analysts point out
More scared of peaceful gestures
"The Iranian regime has shown in the past that it is more scared of peaceful gestures than war threats," Javedanfar added. "It knows how to respond to threats, but the Iranian regime seems to be at a loss every time the US makes a peace gesture. So I think it's a pony trick that the Americans have learned and they're going to keep using it."
But while building bridges with the Iranian population is all very well, critics argue that is no replacement for creating diplomatic bridges with the regime to ease tensions.
"The sanctions policy is driven by lobbies hostile to Iran and tied to outside interests," said Adib-Moghaddam. "The Iranian state under the presidency of Ahmadinejad made it easy for these lobbies to operate due to his reckless rhetoric. But Iran will have a new president soon and this should be taken as a new start for a policy of détente. There is a real chance now to solve the nuclear dossier through diplomatic means. The US and in particular the EU should seize the moment and engage Iran."