Elon Musk said he would activate his Starlink satellite internet service in Iran in response to news that the US Treasury would grant special permission to companies to provide internet services to the country.
Iranians are suffering from widespread internet outages as the Iranian government attempts to quell widespread anti-government protests. Authorities have blocked access to services like Instagram, Whatsapp and Skype. (Other foreign social networks like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok were already blocked.)
The Iranian protests began on September 16 after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the country’s “morality police” for breaking dress code rules. Amini’s death sparked widespread protests, as Iranians expressed frustration with the country’s dress code, limits on individual freedoms and economic stagnation.
The protests have turned into deadly clashes between police and protesters: Iranian state media say 41 people have died in protests so far, while foreign NGOs give higher figures.
On Friday, the United States said companies providing cloud computing, social media and video conferencing would be exempt from sanctions. The sanctions ban most foreign companies from operating in Iran.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter that the exceptions were intended to “advance internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people” and to help them “counter Iranian government censorship”.
Musk said he would activate Starlink to Iran in a response to Blinken’s tweet. Musk first suggested he wanted a sanctions waiver for Starlink on September 19.
Starlink is not the only service trying to restore Internet access in Iran. Signal, whose app has been blocked in Iran since January, asked its users to set up proxy servers, allowing Iranians to bypass internet controls and access Signal.
Previous use of Starlink
This isn’t the first time the SpaceX CEO has offered to turn on satellite internet for other communities in an emergency. In late February, Musk activated Starlink in the Pacific island of Tonga after a massive volcanic eruption cut off internet access in the country. Musk also delivered thousands of Starlink terminals to Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Ukrainians, including soldiers, have used Starlink to keep lines of communication open even as war destroys internet and mobile networks.
But while the Ukrainian government has publicly sought Musk’s help, the Iranian government is unlikely to cooperate with ordinary Iranians trying to import terminals to connect to SpaceX’s satellite internet network. “The Iranian regime wants to ban the internet so it can suppress people in the dark,” tweeted Karim Sadjadpour, Iranian expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (Sadjapour also tweeted that Musk confirmed to him that Starlink was now active for any Iranian with a Starlink terminal)
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Washington’s reaction to the protests could affect ongoing negotiations between the United States and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, which US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman called a “dead end” last week for The Washington Post. On Thursday, the United States imposed sanctions on the Gasht-e-Ershad – Iran’s “morality police” – freezing their US-based assets.
On CBS Confront the Nation On Sunday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said an offer to end some sanctions on Iran in exchange for halting the country’s nuclear program was still on the table, despite protests.
“The fact that we are in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in no way affects our willingness and vehemence to speak out about what is happening on the streets of Iran,” Sullivan said.
Sign up for the Makeshift Features mailing list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews and surveys.