SpaceX chief Elon Musk said he was activating his company’s Starlink internet service in Iran, which cut off web access to its more than 80 million citizens this week, after the U.S. Treasury Department eased sanctions to help support the free flow of information in the country.
In recent days, the Iranian government has carried out a swift and violent crackdown on the massive protests that have rocked the country since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16. The country’s morality police detained the young woman in mid-September because they considered she was not wearing her hijab, or headscarf, properly. Amini died three days after being arrested by the morality police.
Her family and protestors say the young woman died because she was beaten by the police. Authorities, meanwhile, claim she died from a heart attack.
The American government has called Amini’s death a tragedy and on Friday issued guidance that loosened restrictions for tech companies seeking to operate in Iran, which remains under strict sanctions from the U.S.
“The Iranian government has cut off access to the Internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them—and the world—from watching its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Friday. “It is clear that the Iranian government is afraid of its own people. Mahsa Amini is senselessly, tragically dead, and now the government is violently suppressing peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss.”
According to the Treasury Department, the guidance consists of an authorization called the “General License D-2.” The self-executing license expands the scope of permitted software and service exports to Iran and allows companies to provide tools including social media platforms, collaboration platforms, conferencing, e-gaming, and cloud-based services, a senior Treasury Department official said in a press briefing on Friday.
Notably, Starlink doesn’t fit into any of the examples provided by the U.S. government, which means that it’s not clear whether Musk would simply be able to flip a switch to turn on his satellite internet service in Iran.
“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,” the senior Treasury Department official said in the press briefing, according to a transcript.
Earlier this week, before the government announced its support for internet freedom, that’s exactly what the tech billionaire said he was going to do. On Monday, Musk tweeted that Starlink would ask for an exemption from American sanctions on Iran in order to provide internet in the country. It wasn’t clear whether the Musk would actually do this, though. As we all know, he’s a big talker. There are some things he does decide to go through with, but he has a bad habit of pulling out at the last minute and causing a giant mess.
In the briefing, the senior Treasury Department official added that its Office of Foreign Asset Control, the entity in charge of administering and enforcing sanctions, welcomed applications for licenses for any activity not covered under its new guidance.
“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,” the senior Treasury Department official pointed out.
Gizmodo reached out to SpaceX on Saturday to ask for comment and clarification on whether it was going forward with Musk’s announcement to activate Starlink in Iran. However, we did not receive a response.
Iran on Saturday criticized the U.S. for loosening only certain sanctions, stating that it was part of the country’s agenda against its government.
“By reducing the severity of a number of communications sanctions—while maintaining maximum pressure—the U.S. is seeking to advance its goals against Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said, according to a report in state media.