"Mic check!" shouted a young man to a crowded midtown Apple Store in New York City on Thursday. He was wearing a green wristband, the symbol of freedom and human rights in Iran from the democratic uprisings of 2009.
"We are from Iran!" he continued. "We are from Iran," a small, but loud group of Iranians, Iranian-Americans and allies shouted back to a silent Apple Store. In this way, the group cried out:
Apple, stop profiling!
Technology is for all peoples!
Sanctions are collective punishment!
Don't help the Iranian government censor the Internet!
They chanted Apple's corporate slogan — "Think Different," and added, "Act Different!" — until they were escorted out of the store by security officers. Once outside, they continued their chant until police pushed them off the sidewalk.
This midday flash mob was organized by Havaar, a recently formed group of Iranians and Iranian-Americans who are opposed to war, sanctions and state repression. It came in response to an incident last week in a small town just outside of Atlanta, where a young woman was shopping for an iPad at her local Apple Store. As she looked over products, the Iranian-born U.S. citizen spoke Farsi with her uncle, who had accompanied her to the store. Once she had made her selection, she approached a sales representative to make the transaction.
"I just can't sell this to you. Our countries have bad relations," the sales representative informed her.
He went on to cite the company's official policy, which reads:
The U.S. holds complete embargoes against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
The exportation, re-exportation, sale or supply, directly or indirectly from the United States, or by a U.S. person wherever located, of any Apple goods, software, technology (including technical data), or services to any of these countries is strictly prohibited without prior authorization by the U.S. government. This prohibition also applies to any Apple owned subsidiary or any subsidiary employee worldwide.
Using this logic, the customer service representative decided that since the young woman was speaking the Iranian language, there was a chance that the Apple product would find its way back into Iran, thus violating the sanctions. The same logic could deny a Spanish-speaker service for possibly being Cuban, or an Arabic-speaker for possibly being Syrian.
"This incident in Georgia is an opportunity to look deeper into the effects of sanctions and discuss the nature of these discriminatory policies," said an Iranian member of Havaar. "We have been under sanctions for 30 years — this is nothing new, but it is getting progressively worse."
Sanctions notoriously affect numerous aspects of daily life in Iran — much more for ordinary Iranians than the Iranian regime that they are designed to target. In the same way that the sanctions imposed on Iraq caused an epidemic of diseases and malnutrition, Iranians' lives and livelihoods are threatened by the lack of access to medicine and the ever-increasing price of food.
"I talk to my grandmother every weekend," said another young Iranian woman from Havaar. "Every weekend she tells me how much the price of bread or meat has risen since the last time we talked."
Despite the threat of malnutrition and infectious diseases in Iran, sanctions on technology carry special weight for Iranians. Since the democratic uprisings in 2009 — during which people were using tools like Twitter, Facebook and text-messaging to organize and publicize massive demonstrations — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has even more aggressively censored the Internet to undermine dissent. Ironically, therefore, U.S. sanctions against Iran that affect the import of technological tools only strengthen the Iranian regime.
Mani Mostofi, an Iranian-American human rights advocate, explains:
During the Persian New Year, President Obama accused the government of Iran of erecting an iron curtain around communications in Iran to suppress pro-democracy protests. Still, the U.S. continues a sanctions policy that keeps these tools of technology and democracy from getting into the country.
He continues, "You can't say that you support human rights and free expression in Iran and then stop the tools of human rights advocacy and free expression from entering Iran."
In Georgia, an Iranian customer was not treated as a customer, but as a symbol of the Iranian regime. It provided an example of how U.S. foreign policy trickles into corporate policy, thereby informing, condoning and normalizing discrimination between two citizens of the same country — citizens who might otherwise work together in solidarity, in a way that leaves governments and corporations no choice other than to finally think and act differently.