American tech firms will be allowed to expand their business in Iran, where most internet access has been cut off in response to anti-government protests, the Treasury Department said Saturday.
Iran has been cracking down on demonstrators protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of its morality police.
Iranian state TV suggests that as many as 26 protesters and police have been killed since violence erupted over the weekend.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the move will help counter the government's surveillance efforts.
“It is clear that the Iranian government is afraid of its own people,” Blinken said in an emailed statement. “Mahsa Amini is senselessly, tragically dead, and now the government is violently suppressing peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss.”
The morality police detained Amini last week, saying she didn’t properly cover her hair with the Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab. Amini collapsed at a police station and died three days later.
US sanctions were imposed Thursday on the morality police and leaders of other law enforcement agencies.
The Treasury Department said an updated general license issued Friday authorises tech firms to offer more social media and collaboration platforms, video conferencing and cloud-based services.
The updated license also removes the condition that communications be “personal,” which Treasury said was burdening companies with the need to verify the purpose of the communications.
“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is redoubling its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.
“With these changes, we are helping the Iranian people be better equipped to counter the government’s efforts to surveil and censor them.”
The United Nations has called for an investigation into Amini's death.
Amir Rashidi, an exiled Iranian who is director of internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group, said lifting restrictions will help Iranians bypass censorship.
“Also it’s going to provide Iranians with safety and security,” he said. “When you can have your data outside the country Iranian security services cannot unlawfully access your data because your data is protected by international law outside Iran.”
In 2014, Treasury’s sanctions arm issued a license authorizing exports of software and services to Iran that would allow the free exchange of communication over the internet, with the intent to foster the free flow of information to Iranian citizens.
Even so, US firms have been reluctant to do business in Iran, due to fears of violating existing sanctions and other laws that impose penalties.
On Tuesday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that his satellite internet firm Starlink would seek permission to operate in Iran. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said it was up to Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to decide on Starlink’s next steps.
On a Saturday call with journalists, officials from the Treasury and State departments said the move, along with a recent increase in sanctions, does not affect the administration's plans to re-enter in the Iran nuclear deal.