Elon Musk Should Provide Internet in Iran, Lawmakers Urge Yellen

(Bloomberg) – Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen should authorize Elon Musk’s satellite internet service Starlink to operate in heavily sanctioned Iran as the country faces widespread protests, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has said.

Musk “recently stated that SpaceX would apply for a license to provide its Starlink satellite-based internet service to Iran,” lawmakers wrote in a letter to Yellen. “If such a license application is made, we urge you to approve it immediately.” Musk called for the exemption in a tweet on Monday.

The letter was led by Rep. Claudia Tenney, a New York Republican, and Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, and signed by a number of other lawmakers. They also asked the Treasury Department to clarify its policies on promoting communications access in sanctioned countries, urging the department to issue any necessary “comfort letters” to companies that may seek to provide communications services under previously granted general licenses.

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“Congress is asking 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 have to break down all the bureaucratic hurdles and get this done.”

Demonstrations in Iran began last Friday after 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 violating the Islamic dress code. Since then, protests have been reported from numerous cities including the capital Tehran, as well as Karaj, Shiraz, Tabriz, Kerman, Kish Island, Yazd, Neyshapur, Isfahan and Mashhad.

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Death toll in Iranian protests rises to 17 as unrest deepens

“Iranians are taking to the streets demanding justice for Mahsa,” Malinowski said. “We must do our part to keep Iranians connected to the outside world.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the US must do “everything in its power” to “help the brave Iranians who are protesting injustice.”

A Finance Ministry spokesman said the department already allows some services related to internet communications, including those using satellite terminals like Starlink, and welcomes requests 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 violating US sanctions, even when the services they provide have been specifically approved by the Treasury Department. This is especially true in the case of heavily sanctioned jurisdictions like Iran.

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“It becomes a business decision based on the risk appetite in the space,” Tannebaum said in an interview. “You have to have confidence that you have the right controls in place to stay on the right side of the exemption.”

The Treasury Department has begun campaigning for a “chief sanctions economist,” which officials say will help address these kinds of concerns.

(Updates with comments from Rep. McCaul in seventh paragraph)

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