Briefing with Senior Administration Officials on the Administration's Efforts to Advance the Free Flow of Information for the Iranian People

September 23, 2022

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining today’s call.  We have with us [Senior State Department Official] and [Senior Treasury Department Official].  They will discuss today’s release of General License D-2 authorizing the export of certain services, software, and hardware related to communications to Iran.  They will speak today on background and you may refer to them as a senior State Department official and a senior Treasury Department official, respectively, for the purposes of your reporting.

As a reminder, this call is embargoed until the conclusion of the call and audio from this session is not for broadcast or replay.  I will now turn the floor over to [Senior State Department Official] followed then by [Senior Treasury Department Official] and then I will call on you for questions.  Thank you.  Over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thank you very much.  Hi, everybody.  This is [Senior State Department Official].  Mahsa Amini is senselessly and tragically dead, and now the Government of Iran, rather than responding to the peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss by addressing the fundamental problems that led to it, is simply violently suppressing protests.  And as part of that, on Wednesday, the Iranian Government cut off access to the internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them and the rest of the world from watching its violent crackdown.

While Iran’s government is cutting off people’s access to the global internet and to each other, today the United States is taking action to support the free flow of information to and among the Iranian people.  Over the past few years, the U.S. has engaged intently with major U.S. technology companies to understand the issues they face in providing access to personal communication tools for the people in Iran.  I think we all know how quickly technology moves, and as hard as it is for each of us individually to keep up with it, imagine how difficult it is from the regulatory perspective to keep up with those changes and make sure that our policy objectives are met by the framework that we put in place.

So as a result of the coordination over the course of that last year, year and a half, today the Department of Treasury has issued General License D-2, updating its guidance to expand the range of internet services available to Iranians.  The updated general license dramatically increases support for internet freedom in Iran by bringing U.S. sanctions guidance into line with changes in modern technology.  The updated guidance will authorize technology companies to offer the Iranian people more options for secure, private, outside platform and services.  With these changes, the Iranian people will be better equipped to counter the Iranian Government’s efforts to surveil and censor them.

Before I turn it over to my friend [Senior Treasury Department Official], I just want to say how incredibly grateful all of us are at the State Department for the work that the Treasury Department has done not only over the last year and a half but over the last week in order to be able to respond, I think profoundly and in real time, to the crisis that we’re seeing in Iran with something that I think can make a meaningful difference in the Iranian people’s ability to communicate with the outside world and with each other.  And so with that, over to [Senior Treasury Department Official] in Treasury.

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  [Senior State Department Official], thanks so much and thanks for the kind words, and this is only possible today with the intense collaboration with our State Department colleagues.  Good afternoon, everyone.  My name is [Senior Treasury Department Official] from the Office of Foreign Assets Control at U.S. Treasury.

The U.S. Government is committed to ensuring that the Iranian people can exercise their universal right to freedom of expression and to freely access information via the internet.  So in furtherance of this commitment to promote the free flow of information to the citizens of Iran, which the Iranian Government has consistently denied to its people, OFAC issued today Iran General License D-2, which expands the scope of authorized exports to Iran of software and services incident to the exchange of communication over the internet.

The expanded authorization will allow U.S. companies to provide tools to the – to ordinary Iranians and assist in their efforts to resist repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools deployed by the Iranian Government, especially amidst the recent public protests and internet outages following the death of Mahsa Amini.  In addition to promoting the free flow of information to the Iranian people, General License D-2 includes important updates to reflect the technological developments of communications software and related services in recent years and it clarifies that products and services – those products and services that are authorized for exportation or re-exportation to Iran.

General licenses are self-executing, which means that anyone who meets the criteria outlined in this general license can proceed with their activities without notifying or requesting additional permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.  For any activity not covered by General License D-2, OFAC welcomes and we will prioritize applications for specific licenses to authorize activities supporting internet freedom in Iran.  Specific licenses are individualized and are not public.

In the coming weeks we will endeavor to issue additional guidance that will help businesses and NGOs take advantage of the new authorizations in General License D-2.  Until then, we appreciate your understanding if we cannot answer every technical question that you may have today.

The U.S. Government will continue to identify those opportunities to support the Iranian people’s right and ability to communicate freely and without fear of government reprisals.

With that, I’ll turn it back over to our State Department colleagues.  Over to you, [Moderator].

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Operator, would you please mind repeating the instructions for joining the queue to pose a question?

OPERATOR:  Absolutely.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad.

MODERATOR:  Excellent.  Thank you so much.  Could we please go to the line of Simon Lewis from Reuters?

OPERATOR:  Simon’s line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you.  Thanks for doing this.  So I wonder if I could ask the officials to try to spell out a little bit more the real world sort of consequences of this.  Just to go back to, I guess, context, the – there was this announcement by Starlink that they were going to apply for a license, but the response from Treasury seemed to be that for something like Starlink they wouldn’t actually need – the exception already applied, or it wasn’t actually required.  So this – I assume this isn’t addressing Starlink directly, and you’re talking about allowing companies to provide secure, private platforms and services.

But if the Iranian regime is actually cutting off the internet, does this – will this help people to get access to the global internet rather than – we’re talking about sort of social media companies and platforms and video messaging sites, those kind of things.  You obviously can’t access those without basic internet connections.  So, could you sort of spell out for me how exactly today’s action makes it easier for Iranians to get online, to literally get online if the internet is being blocked?  I hope that makes sense.  Thank you.

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Great.  Well, I’m happy – this is [Senior Treasury Department Official], and happy to start.  Sort of from the outset, if you think about what General License D-2 expands, it’s really three – I would say three things are expanded upon in General License D-2.  First, is that the communication tool available under D-1 were down-level.  And so what D-2 does is it updates and expands those authorized communication tools to sort of match modern times.  So, everything from social media platforms, collaboration platforms, conferencing, e-gaming, other tools that maybe were not exclusively what was before a requirement for personal communication, things like mapping tools and others.  So – and most importantly what it does is it expands the access of cloud-based services.

Why is this key?  It’s because today so many VPNs and other sort of anti-surveillance tools are delivered via cloud.  And so it was important that this authorization expand the cloud-based services, and also that we give guidance to those cloud service providers, so that they understand that their due diligence obligations really are manageable.  And so we provided that today.

The other expansions in this general license is that – and I mentioned it briefly before – is that it removes this limitation that the authorized services be connected to personal communication.  So that was the feedback we got from many technology companies, that that limitation and ambiguity in the regulations was really a sticking point for them.  So, we’ve removed that limitation that it be tied to personal communication.

Last but not least – and this circles back to your question in part on Starlink – we expanded within this general license our licensing policy for specific licenses.  So, remember a general license, self-executing; specific license, these are privately given for activity that may be outside General License D-2.  We expanded that policy today, which is quite forward-leaning and a policy supportive of these applications, especially the anti-surveillance and other type of activity that it – to the extent it’s not covered by General License D-2.  So, we welcome these license applications.  OFAC will expedite them working with our State Department colleagues for the foreign policy guidance to issue those, so we would just welcome Starlink and others to apply.[1]

The question probably is, folded into your original question, whether or not Starlink would necessarily – what it seeks to do – fall within the scope of this general license – or they would need to come in.  Our understanding of Starlink is that what they provide would be commercial grade, and it would be hardware that’s not covered in the general license; so that would be something they would need to write into Treasury for.[2]

Over to [Senior State Department Official] for any further comments.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I think the only thing I would quickly add to that is that, to your question, it remains the case that the Government of Iran has repressive tools available to them, including repressive tools for communications and the internet.  I think what this general license does, what the licensing policy that [Senior Treasury Department Official] outlined does is make it that much easier for the Iranian people to confront some of those repressive tools.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist anymore.  And so that’s, I think, what we’re going to look forward to seeing develop in our communication with the private sector over the course of the coming weeks, and then what they then will be able to rule out in terms of available services in Iran over the similar period of time.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Could we please go to the line of Guita Aryan from Voice of America?

OPERATOR:  Okay, one moment.

QUESTION:  Am I on yet?

OPERATOR:  Your line is open now.

QUESTION:  Oh yes, thank you.  Hi, one question I’m sure specifically you can answer – the others I’m not sure, but still.  Is there any – is this general license open-ended, number one?  Number two, even non-U.S. firms are able to take advantage of it?  And also – this is where I have some technical questions – would the services companies be providing – would they be, you think, hack-free, and would the Iranian people themselves be able to easily access these services provided without needing anything that would require them to have something that the Iranian Government may be controlling?  Thank you.

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Sure – it’s [Senior Treasury Department Official], happy to start.  Yes, the general license is open-ended.  It does not have an expiration date.  The general license – to the extent our regulations flow to certain exports of U.S. goods, re-exports of U.S. goods overseas.  To the extent that there’s a scope of our regulations that are prohibiting non-U.S. person activity, they are authorized in this general license.  So, you will see some language that’s specific to U.S. persons.  In those respects, it’s because the non-U.S. person isn’t caught by the regulation.  But to the extent that they are, the general license does cover them.

MODERATOR:  Okay, great.  Thank you so much.  Could we please go to the line of Bahman Kaldsai from BBC?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  One moment.  And your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  Is your assessment that the companies like Amazon or Google need some follow-up from your end to sort of walk them through the policy?  We’ve had longstanding issue of sometimes even overzealous application of sanctions that have denied Iranian public from services that wasn’t even sanctioned.  Is there – are you in contact with them to make sure they take advantage and restore these services?

Also, you did talk about Starlink a little bit and the fact that they still kind of need to apply for the hardware part of it.  But it seems to be as this sort of fundamental issue as we speak, because we are losing contact with audiences in Iran and vice versa.  The access seems to be – is indeed the most important issue.  And solving that, obviously, has come to the forefront because of it.  Is there any plan to be proactive about that, and to see if more can be done on that front?  Thank you.

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So [Senior State Department Official], I’m sure you’ll have more to add to this, but the collaboration between the State Department and Treasury over some time has been to reach out and communicate with these IT companies to understand the issues that they’re having.  And the changes that we’ve rolled out today reflects direct input from those conversations.  This is something that OFAC and the State Department regularly do, which is have contact and welcome conversations and meetings with companies that are sort of within our regulatory scope or, in cases like this, companies that we seek to have authorizations that they can take advantage of and understand what additional needs they may have.

Over to over to you, [Senior State Department Official] for other comments.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks, [Senior Treasury Department Official].  I would just – I would just underscore that, to answer your question, that we and the administration, as a whole, are absolutely being and are going to continue to be proactive in outreach to private-sector actors so that they understand what’s covered by this general license.  And to the extent that any of them have ideas that they want to pursue that may require additional licensing, as [Senior Treasury Department Official] said at the very top, part of this is a commitment from us to prioritize such specific license applications from both the State and Treasury perspective, so that they move as quickly as possible.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Could we please go to the line of Laura Rozen?

OPERATOR:  One moment.  Your line is open now.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for doing this.  I have gotten questions, as maybe you have.  Can you all issue guidance on, if people want to donate to help women in Iran, what they’re – what they’re entitled to do legally?

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, thanks so much for that question. We do have guidance on our website right now, but we’ll – that’s a great question whether we can highlight some of the available authorizations related to particularly NGOs and the ability to donate to them.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Could we please go to the line of Robin Wright from The New Yorker?

OPERATOR:  One moment.  And your line is open now.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  For – some of us saw the president of Iran yesterday, and I’d like to broaden the questioning just a little bit to ask:  Given his kind of vitriolic language, both in sessions with journalists as well as on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly, can you give us a sense of where things stand?  He seemed very belligerent, very determined not to compromise on the outstanding issues, and certainly left us with an impression that the nuclear – nuclear talks are not going anyplace anytime soon.  So, we’d – I think, all appreciate an update if possible.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Sure.  Thanks, Robin.  I’ll take this quickly, but I do – I would like then to pivot back to the news that we’re trying to explain on the GL.  Look, I think that you’re right that we didn’t hear anything particularly positive in New York this week.  The Iranians are talking about, as you mentioned, these outstanding safeguards issues at the IAEA, and our bottom line here is very clear:  The IAEA has asked some questions that Iran needs to answer so that the agency can be certain that there is no nuclear material not under safeguards in Iran.  That is the absolute heart of the IAEA’s mandate in assisting with the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and we are 100 percent supportive of their independent efforts to execute that mandate.

When they say that they’ve got the answers that they need, then these issues, as far as we’re concerned, won’t be open anymore.  So long as they haven’t gotten the information they need, then they remain open.  If Iran wants the issues – if Iran wants to resolve the issues, very straightforward.  They just need to provide the answers and access to the IAEA.  And the time frame on which that happens is really in Iran’s hands.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.  Could we go to the line of Alex Raufoglu?

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  And your line is open now.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you so much for doing this.  I was just wondering if you could quickly give us any timeline as to when average Iranians will start benefiting from this.  I’m asking because the general sentiment is that this will not be much help in the short term in helping the Iranians during their protests – in short term, but it will, of course, help in the long term in both allowing the technologies to make – to make use of these tools instead of state-controlled ones, and, of course, also allow the government to refrain from using this – the propaganda excuse to justify the national information (inaudible).  Thank you so much.

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, thank you for the question.  It’s hard to speak for private sector companies on how quickly they can pivot to provide additional services, so I would refer you to the companies that might be interested in taking advantage of the expanded GL.

MODERATOR:  Great.  I believe we have time for one more question.  Could we please go to the line of Fatima Hussein from the Associated Press?

OPERATOR:  Thank you, one moment.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you for taking these questions.  I have two questions.  Number one, does this licensing move – does it contravene any Iranian law or just the Iranian law that would bar foreign companies from providing internet or other telecommunications services?

And I want to sort of touch on what Robin asked – how does this issuance today, along with the massive influx of sanctions against Iran this year, impact reentry into the nuclear deal?  It sounds like from your answer that the U.S. is still very much committed to engaging on that and this has nothing to do with the reentry into the nuclear deal.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Thanks so much.  This is [Senior State Department Official].  I’ll kick it off, maybe, and then if [Senior Treasury Department Official] has anything to add.  Whether – so I am not an expert on Iranian telecommunications law.  I don’t know if anything here would either implicitly or explicitly be a violation of Iranian law.  Again, I think, going back to some of the first questions that were asked, this general license does not remove every tool of communications repression that the Government of Iran has to direct at its own people.  It does, I think, make it – it does – it will over time give the Iranian people more tools to address those repressive efforts from the Iranian Government.

On the second question, yes, I can affirm exactly what you said.  This administration remains categorically committed to mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.  We assess that to be strongly in the U.S. national interest, and we’ll continue to work with our allies and partners to try to conclude and to begin that re-implementation.  Again, right now, I think the Iranians, themselves, need to make a decision about moving beyond some of the issues that they have raised, which go beyond the scope of the JCPOA – including the outstanding safeguards issues that Robin raised or simply resolving those outstanding safeguards issues, which, as I said, is in their power to do.

And this action – and as you mentioned, the sanctions that we have rolled out over recent weeks, months, and years – I think these are all just a reminder of the core, really, of our view of the JCPOA, which is that the JCPOA was always intended to be a nuclear deal to put Iran’s nuclear program into a very well-monitored box.  And it works doing exactly that, and we want to get back to it working and doing exactly that.  It was never intended to and did not address other points of concern about Iran’s policies, whether those be UAVs, proliferation, support to regional proxies and terrorist networks, or as we’re seeing tragically in these weeks, its own human rights abuses and oppression of its own people.

We are going to continue to use all of the tools that are available to us to address those other points of concerns that we have about Iran, whether we’re negotiating to return to the JCPOA, in the JCPOA, or not; and that’s – that’s, I think, what we’re demonstrating with this general license in support of the Iranian people’s fundamental right to be able to communicate.  It’s what you saw last – this week with our sanctions against the morality police, who were responsible for the tragic death in custody of Mahsa Amini and last week about UAVs and cyber technology and everything else that we’re going to continue to do with or without JCPOA.

MODERATOR:  Excellent.  Thank you so much.  With that, our call has come to a conclusion.  Thank you all so much for joining us, and thank you to our speakers as well for their time.  And so thank you all again and appreciate your time.  Thank you.