Why Google brought its app store to Iran, and what it could mean for Syria

August 27, 2013

(Mark Lennihan / AP)

On Monday, Google became one of the first American companies to take advantage of newly loosened U.S. sanctions against Iran. With a Google Plus post, the search giant announced that it was offering its Play store to Iranian citizens, allowing them to download free apps from its app marketplace.

The Treasury Department, which sets the export restrictions, issued the new rules back in May. But the recent easing is actually part of a longer process that doesn't just change U.S. policy toward Iran; it also potentially touches the sanctions regime affecting other targeted states, including Syria.

The directive that Google took advantage of this week is known as General License D. It replaces a narrower export regulation that made it possible for U.S. companies to sell social networking technology, blogging software, instant messaging tools and several other select types of technologies to Iran. The new rule established this spring widens the acceptable range of salable products to include "services, software, and hardware incident to personal communications."

What's key about this is that the U.S. government no longer cherry-picks technologies, said Tim Maurer, a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

"This new license provides blanket authorization for products and services, whereas before, you had regulation that required businesses to apply for specific licenses — which meant additional costs to apply and to wait," said Maurer.

Google isn't the first major tech company to respond to General License D. In June, Apple updated its export compliance page to say that some of its products fell into the whitelist.

Iran is currently the only U.S.-sanctioned country to benefit from such a broad license. It's not clear why Treasury officials decided to open up to Iran this way first rather than picking a less controversial country, but the point is rather moot. Iran has already blocked access to Google Play from inside its borders, according to Internet researcher Collin Anderson.

Still, the Obama administration has followed a pattern of gradually relaxing export restrictions worldwide. In 2010, the Treasury Department allowed American companies to export a limited set of named, specific technologies to countries including Iran, Sudan and Cuba. Then, in 2011, the agency issued a similar rule on Syria.

In recent months, Treasury officials have adopted a broader rule for Syria, saying they would "look favorably" on license applications involving technologies that aren't already covered by the 2011 round of loosening. The new rule isn't quite as relaxed as the policy toward Iran, but the easing of Syria sanctions does appear to reflect the department's previous progression, said New America's Danielle Kehl. With Washington abuzz in speculation over a potential military intervention in Syria, granting a blanket authorization might help the rebels coordinate their activity in the long run.

It's not likely to happen in time for U.S. jets to arrive, though. Even if it did happen, it'd likely be months before any U.S. companies felt confident enough in the rules to do anything about it -- just like it took months for Google to open up the Play store to Iran.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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