Elon Musk to provide internet in Iran, lawmakers urge Yellen

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(Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen should allow Elon Musk’s satellite Internet service Starlink 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,” lawmakers wrote in a letter to Yellen. “If such a permit application is submitted, we urge you to approve it immediately.” Musk called for 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 several other lawmakers. They also asked Treasury to clarify its policies for promoting communications access in sanctioned countries and urge the department to provide necessary “letters of comfort” to entities that may wish to provide communications services under previously issued general licenses.

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“Congress calls 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 have to cut through all the red tape 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 Islamic dress codes. Since then, protests have been reported in numerous towns and cities, including the capital Tehran and Karaj, Shiraz, Tabriz, Kerman, Kish Island, Yazd, Neyshapur, Esfahan and Mashhad.

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Iran protest death toll rises to 17 as unrest mounts

“Iranians are taking to the streets and demanding justice for Mahsa,” Malinowski said. “We must 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 who are protesting injustice.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Finance said the ministry already allows a number of services related to internet communications, including services that use satellite terminals like 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 US sanctions, even if the service they provide is expressly authorized by Treasury. This is especially true in the case of heavily sanctioned jurisdictions such as Iran.

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

Treasury has started advertising for a “chief economist for sanctions,” which officials say will help mitigate these kinds of concerns.

(Updates with Rep. McCaul’s comments in the seventh paragraph)

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