The Obama administration has waived some Iran sanctions so that ordinary Iranians can download U.S.-made software used in social media and networking Web sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, that help disseminate information bypassing government censorship.
The administration’s unusual move coincided with its opposition to economic sanctions approved by the House of Representatives this week, which would end access to U.S. markets for foreign companies that sell gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran.
“U.S. sanctions on Iran are having an unintended chilling effect on the ability of companies such as Microsoft and Google to continue providing essential communications tools to ordinary Iranians,” the State Department said in a letter to members of Congress.
“This waiver will authorize free downloads to Iran of certain nominally dual-use software (because of low-level encryption elements), classified as mass-market software by the Department of Commerce and essential for the exchange of personal communications and/or sharing of information over the Internet,” it said.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised the administration’s decision.
“Granting of this waiver is an important step in ensuring that our actions here do not impede the attempts by Iranians to exercise their human rights,” said Mr. Levin, who read part of the letter on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Explaining the decision, State Department spokesman Ian C. Kelly said it was prompted by concerns that “some Internet companies have cut off services to individuals in sanctioned countries, or are looking to do so, rather than risk violating U.S. sanctions regulations.”
Because “encouraging the free flow of information is a high priority for the U.S. government,” Undersecretary of State for International Security and Arms Control Ellen Tauscher “recently signed an Iran waiver covering downloads of free mass-market software to Iran,” Mr. Kelly said.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, said the waiver was the least the U.S. could do for Iran’s reformers.
He called it “an important step toward addressing the negative impact U.S. sanctions have had on ordinary people in Iran who have shown tremendous courage in standing up for their rights.”
In addition to Iran, waivers will most likely to granted to Cuba and Sudan, he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Twitter and Facebook during anti-government protests in Iran after the disputed June 12 presidential election. Those sites served not only as information tools but also to mobilize opposition protests.
At one point during the postelection demonstrations, the State Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance, which would have shut the site down for several hours.
Iran is already subject to numerous U.S. sanctions. But its failure to stop enriching uranium, a fuel for power plants and atomic bombs, has prompted a push for additional economic penalties by the U.S. and its allies.
On Wednesday, the House passed a sanctions package as part of a bill sponsored by Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Obama administration, however, warned that the House measure could undercut efforts to craft international penalties on the Islamic republic.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg wrote in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Washington was “entering a critical period of intense diplomacy to impose significant international pressure on Iran.
“Sanctions legislation “might weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts,” Mr. Steinberg warned.
The United States and five other world powers want Iran to send its uranium to be enriched in another country to make sure the fuel is not used to make a nuclear weapon, but Tehran has resisted. A meeting of senior officials from those countries had been scheduled for this week but was canceled at China’s request.
Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.