Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen should give Elon Musk’s satellite Internet service Starlink clearance to operate in heavily sanctioned Iran as the country faces widespread protests, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said.
Musk “recently stated that SpaceX would seek a license to provide its satellite based Starlink Internet service to Iran,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Yellen. “If such a license request is submitted, we urge you to approve it immediately.” Musk called for the exemption in a tweet on Monday.
The letter was led by Representatives Claudia Tenney, a New York Republican, and Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, and signed by a number of other lawmakers. They also asked Treasury to clarify its policies for fostering communications access in sanctioned countries and urge the department to issue any necessary “comfort letters” to entities that may seek to provide communications services under previously issued general licenses.
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“Congress is calling on the Treasury Department to do everything in its power to help the Iranian people stay connected to the Internet,” Tenney said in a statement. “We need to cut through any bureaucratic red tape and get this done.”
Demonstrations in Iran started last Friday following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a young woman who fell into a coma after Tehran’s so-called morality police arrested her for allegedly flouting Islamic dress codes. Protests have since been reported in scores of towns and cities including the capital Tehran as well as Karaj, Shiraz, Tabriz, Kerman, Kish Island, Yazd, Neyshapur, Esfahan and Mashhad.
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“Iranians are taking to the street demanding justice for Mahsa,” Malinowski said. “We need to do our part to ensure that Iranians remain connected to the outside world.”
Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the US must do “everything in our power” to help “the brave Iranians protesting against injustice.”
A Treasury spokesperson said the department already allows some services related to Internet communications, including those that use satellite terminals as Starlink does, and that it welcomes applications for specific licenses related to Internet freedom in Iran.
Daniel Tannebaum, a partner at Oliver Wyman, said companies are sometimes wary of exposing themselves to the risk of running afoul of US sanctions even when the service they provide is expressly authorised by Treasury. This is especially true in the case of heavily sanctioned jurisdictions such as Iran.
“It becomes a business decision based on risk appetite in the space,” Tannebaum said in an interview. “You need to trust that you have the right controls in place to stay on the right side of the exemption.”
Treasury has begun advertising for a “chief sanctions economist” who officials say will help mitigate these types of concerns.