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US Sanctions Telecommunications Companies in Syria and Iran

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In a move that may be relevant to the debate in Australia about the role of the Chinese telecommunication conglomerate Huawei, US President Barack Obama has announced that the US will apply new sanctions to prevent companies from using technology that help repressive regimes in Syria and Iran target dissidents -

The Los Angeles Times reported:

"Taking aim at what it called ‘digital guns for hire,' the administration unveiled new sanctions against major telecom firms in those countries as well as the governments themselves for recording cellphone calls, monitoring Internet traffic and employing other technological tools to ‘facilitate grave human rights abuses.'"

Obama made the announcement at the US Holocaust Museum standing alongside Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who had implored Obama to stand against Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad . He said:

"Have we learned anything from it?...If so, how is that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president?"

According to the UN, approximately 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since the crackdown by the Assad regime began in March 2011.

The violence in Syria continues to escalate, despite a peace plan of having unarmed UN observers in Syria. Reportedly at least 66 people were killed on April 25, mostly in the city of Hama. The deployment of 300 UN observers has been delayed, with only 15 so far in place in Syria.

The new US sanctions will target Syrian and Iranian government agencies and officials who directed the surveillance operations, as well private companies.

The sanctions will freeze any assets or property in the US controlled by the companies or the Syrian and Iranian governments. The sanctions also ban government officials or company executives implicated in using technology to ‘track and target citizens for violence' from obtaining visas to enter the U.S.

The sanctions specifically target:

  •   Ali Mamluk, Director of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate;
  •   Syrian General Intelligence Directorate;
  •   Syriatel;
  •   Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps;
  •   Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security;
  •   Law Enforcement Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  •   Datak Telecom;


According to the US Administration, the Syrian government had directed Syriatel, a private company that controls 55 percent of Syria's mobile phone market, to cut off network access in areas where the government planned attacks on rebels. The US Administration also said that Syriatel had recorded mobile phone calls on the government's behalf.

Datak Telecom

According to the US Administration, Datak Telecom - an Internet service provider in Iran, collaborated with the Iranian government to monitor, track and target people who tried to get around the regime's blocking of Internet content.

Datak also reportedly assisted in surveillance of Iranians who used a popular commercial email service, and it planned to expand the operation to potentially include millions of Iranian Internet users.

Ali Mamluk, Director of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate

Ali Mamluk is the only person specifically named in the sanctions. The US Administration claim that Mamluk oversaw a communications program by the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate that was directed at opposition groups. Mamluk worked with Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security to provide the Syrian government with training in the use of Internet monitoring technology. Reportedly he also requested Iran's help with monitoring social networks.

The US Administration also said that the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate has been implicated in serious human rights abuses, such as arbitrary arrests and the deaths of detainees.

Australia's plan for sanctions

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently announced that Australia would support international plans to increase sanctions against Syria and impose an arms embargo should the Assad regime continue to ignore a UN peace plan, as well as impose sanctions of its own.

Prime Minister Gillard said:

''Syria must comply with its commitments under the plan. Without a credible ceasefire, UN peace monitors cannot do their work... If the Syrian government continues to breach its obligations, Australia will support UN sanctions and an arms embargo... We have autonomous sanctions now and we will consider further autonomous sanctions in the future.''

The issue of telecommunications companies supporting repressive regimes track dissidents has also been recently raised in Australia and the US regarding the company Huawei (see previous blog post).

The Australian government recently blocked Huawei from participating in the national broadband network (NBN) due to ‘national security concerns'.

The Wall Street Journal also reported last year that Huawei was complicit in providing technological services that enabled the Iranian regime to track and locate Iranian dissidents during the 2009 Iranian demonstrations - many of the dissidents were killed by the regime. Huawei deny these claims.

The reports led to a US State Department investigation into whether Huawei has breached US sanctions on Iran.

The focus on telecommunications companies appears to reflect the nature of the political struggles in the Middle East. As Michael Abramowitz, Director of the Holocaust museum's Committee on Conscience said:

"I'm sure countries like Sudan, Syria and others are watching closely what's happening on Facebook... They don't need to send plainclothes men to follow activists anymore. They can follow them online."

Sharyn Mittelman

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