The Obama administration launched an offensive against Iranian censorship on Thursday, announcing measures intended to help ordinary Iranians acquire smartphones and computer software to thwart government eavesdroppers.
The key step, a “general license” issued by the Treasury Department, gives private companies permission to sell communications equipment to Iranians, overriding trade restrictions that had limited legitimate sales of phones and computer gear to the Islamic Republic.
U.S. officials said the action, coming two weeks before Iran’s presidential elections, would make it easier for ordinary Iranians to obtain unfiltered news or to talk freely to people outside the country.
“Freedom of speech, assembly and expression are universal human rights,” David S. Cohen, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in announcing the move. “We will use all the tools at our disposal . . . to help the Iranian people exercise these basic rights.”
Administration officials said the effort is a response to new Iranian efforts to stifle political expression and cut off access to foreign news. Four years after the disputed 2009 presidential election, Tehran is taking more aggressive steps to silence dissent and prevent government opponents from communicating with one another, a senior administration official said.
“We continue to be gravely concerned by human rights abuses by Iranian government officials, including in surveillance and in disruption of communication and access to the media,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity as one of the ground rules for a briefing to journalists on the measures.
By loosening restrictions on sales of communications equipment, Iranians will have improved access to smartphones, satellite phones, satellite dishes and computer software that blocks hackers and spyware, the official said.
The likely impact inside Iran is far from certain. While certain Western brands are officially banned from being sold inside Iran — Apple, for example, restricts sales of its products in Iran — most are widely available in Iranian stores, sometimes at lower prices compared with Western retailers.
A bigger challenge for many ordinary Iranians is obtaining anti-filtering software to access social media sites. In recent years, Iranian authorities have become better at defeating the most commonly available computer tools that allow Iranians to circumvent government controls on the Internet.
In a related move, administration officials announced new sanctions and visa restrictions on dozens of Iranian individuals and companies the White House has linked to alleged human rights abuses stemming from Iran’s 2009 crackdown on the country’s Green Revolution protests.
Jason Rezaian in Tehran contributed to this report.