Iran Sanctions Policy Increasingly Throttles Free Trade in Ideas

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

In 1988, as legislators were creating the legal basis for the modern use of economic sanctions as a tool of American foreign policy, an important amendment was added to two laws, the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA) and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). The so-called Berman Amendment was devised to withdraw the president’s authority to use sanctions to prohibit the import or export of informational materials, whether directly or indirectly.

Former Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-CA), who put forward the amendment, felt that support for access to information was a cornerstone of American foreign policy and should not be undermined by any program of economic sanctions. He stated: “The fact that we disapprove of the government of a particular country ought not to inhibit our dialog with the people who suffer under those governments…. We are strongest and most influential when we embody the freedoms to which others aspire.” In 1994, the provisions in the Berman Amendment were expanded in the Free Trade in Ideas Act in response to the fast changing media landscape. The definition of “informational materials” came to apply “regardless of format or medium of transmission” to “any information or informational materials.”

Since then, American sanctions policy has generally sought to ensure that the targeting of commercial and financial channels does not inhibit the transmission of information. This is perhaps best exemplified in the case of the sanctions regime levied on Iran, the most extensive ever devised. Even in the case of Iran, exemptions exist in the sanctions regulations for activities such as, publishing, journalism, Internet communications, and even organizing events. In addition, more specific permissions are granted in the form of so-called General Licenses issued by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). These include General License D-1, which permits the use of certain software or hardware for personal communications, and General Licence G, which licenses the export or import of educational services to and from Iran. Companies can also apply for specific licenses, which have been awarded to enable publishing, research, and communications activities that may be more commercial in nature, but are still consistent with the notion of “free trade in ideas.”

However, recent developments suggest that American regulators have lost sight of the absolute importance of protecting informational exchange. On October 13, the U.S. Treasury designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT) As several sanctions designations had already blocked the IRGC, the new action made little difference to the prohibitions around commercial and financial dealings with the Guards. But the push for a terrorism designation did have one new and substantive outcome.

In the FAQ note issued to clarify the new designation, OFAC explains that the new designation draws upon a counterterrorism authority, Executive Order 13224, which was not previously applied to the IRGC. As a result of this new authority, the IRGC “may not avail themselves of the so called ‘Berman exemptions’ under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) relating to personal communication, humanitarian donations, information or informational materials, and travel.”

This represents one of the first instances in an Iran sanctions designation in which OFAC has specifically clarified that the provisions of the Berman Amendment do not apply. Sanctions experts are quick to point out that, despite the new designation, OFAC will necessarily prioritize enforcing possible illicit financial support for the IRGC above the possible transmission of information, which could be as innocuous as usage of social media platforms or distribution of news media. But if the loss of the exemptions is the only substantive legal consequence of the new designation, then the stakes are actually quite high. As sanctions attorney Clif Burns sharply observed in a blog post, “It is now a federal crime for a U.S. person to give a copy of The Bible to anyone in the IRGC.”

American policymakers may not harbor any sympathies for members of the IRGC, but the manner in which the designation affects informational exchange is emblematic of a general failure in US sanctions policy to adequately consider or protect the free trade in ideas with people and entities, even those on the opposing sides of an adversarial relationship. Beyond the nefarious IRGC, members of Iranian civil society also see their access to information increasingly restricted. In August, Iranian apps were removed from both Apple’s App Store and Google Play, causing an uproar among Iranian users. In September, the online-course platform Coursera began to limit a wider range of content for users based in Iranian, citing sanctions regulations.

For now, the likes of Apple, Google, and Coursera are making voluntary decisions to limit their service provision to Iranian users. But the moves were likely spurred by the marked shift in Iran policy between the Obama and Trump administrations. These companies may have changed their policies in accordance with a stricter interpretation of General License D-1, which had previously been used to justify providing Iranian users access to these online platforms. During the Obama years, the “spirit” of OFAC’s enforcement mandate was clear and informational exchange was in fact encouraged within the scope of exemptions and general licenses.

It may seem tenuous to link the IRGC’s new designation with the recent experiences of Iranian Internet users. But in both cases, the overall disposition of American sanctions policy has clearly moved away from the political and ethical intentions behind the Berman Amendment. Even if the impact on information flows is so far inadvertent and primarily reflective of voluntary actions by the companies operating informational platforms, OFAC could absolutely be doing more to provide comfort around the general permissibility of informational exchange.

The consequences of any reduced “trade in ideas” with Iran will be profound. The United States is limiting its means to influence decisionmaking within the IRGC at precisely the same moment that it is undermining the ability of Iranian civil society to freely access informational services. It is unclear how removing the Berman exemptions for the IRGC weakens the organization. If anything, it may make it harder for Iranian and foreign stakeholders to help influence key reforms that would help mitigate the IRGC’s political and economic might.

For example, with the new designation, a non-governmental organization can no longer seek to treat IRGC affiliates as subjects in any research or technical-assistance programs. This is particularly concerning as Iran’s government seeks to push forward with a program of economic liberalization and attempts to induce the IRGC to sell assets and reduce their economic footprint. The Rouhani government needs foreign assistance to cleave the IRGC from its role in the economy, but that assistance may now be prohibited if the informational materials in question are ultimately earmarked for IRGC affiliates.

In March of this year, American University in Beirut agreed to pay a penalty of $700,000 to settle claims in a civil suit brought by the United States. The penalty was tied in part to the provision of “material support” to Jihad al-Binaa, an organization linked to the SDGT-designated Hezbollah, on a university database “for the stated purpose of connecting Non-Governmental Organizations (“NGOs”) with students and others interested in assisting them.” The IRGC has a much wider range of affiliated entities than most organizations designated under counterterrorism authorities, including commercial entities, welfare organizations, and educational institutions. If even listing these entities in a database can be seen as tantamount to material support, warranting an enforcement action, then the SDGT designation could significantly reduce the scope for responsible dialogue with the IRGC, whether direct or indirect.

Considering the fundamental role that both government-backed and independent research and technical assistance programs played in fomenting political and economic liberalization in formerly embargoed countries such as the former Soviet Republics, China, and Vietnam, any policy that blocks informational exchange will deprive the United States of some of its best foreign-policy tools.

There are times when blocking economic relations is necessary. But there is no situation in which the total denial of the free trade of ideas is sensible. The Berman Amendment is much more than a quirk of sanctions policy. It is among the most lucid formulations of liberalism in American foreign policy. In devising its approach to Iran, the Trump administration would do well not to lose sight of how the exchange of ideas has long made American foreign policy great.

Photo: Howard Berman

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Esfandyar has spent the last 5 years working on projects related to "business diplomacy" between the West and Iran. He is the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, the leading annual gathering for business, government and civil society leaders committed to Iran's economic development, and the executive editor Bourse & Bazaar, a digital business publication with a focus on Iran. He is a graduate of Columbia University.



  1. Thanks for that interesting post , to declare or define the IRG as a terror organization , would undermine even the American interest of fighting terror , or , bring change in the Iranian regime. This is because , the IRG is the state and vice versa . It can’t be a terror organization by definition so . Here from the Preamble of the Iranian constitution , reads so :

    ” An Ideological Army

    In the formation and equipping of the country’s defence forces, due attention must be paid to faith and ideology as the basic criteria. Accordingly, the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are to be organized in conformity with this goal, and they will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Qur’anic verse “Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them” ”

    End of quotation :

    So , they have legal and even legal formal constitutional status in Iran ( as a state ) . You can’t challenge the state itself !! If you could , you wouldn’t be able basically ( too complicated ) to indict individuals for International crimes ( like terror ) .This is because , they were agents of the state itself , while , criminal indictment can be implied only on natural persons , means : individuals , never against a state ( That is a strict principle) . This is a problem ( which can be solved , yet problematic ) !! So , the solution , is to stay in line , with the same US policy so far , imposing sanctions on persons , on individuals , like in the case of Venezuela or Sudan and Iran even . By that , clear separation would be kept , between the state as legal entity , and , individuals deviating , criminally , individually from their legal duty or from norms .


  2. The US hatred of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is pervasive and boundless because the IRGC was instrumental along with Russia and Syria in foiling the (assumed successful) regime change in Syria. The IRGC, being non-state, could be classified as a terrorist, i.e. any non-state enemy of the US.
    Regarding the Berman Amendment:
    The authority granted to the President by this section does not include the authority to regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, the importation from any country, or the exportation to any country, whether commercial or otherwise of publications, films, posters… or other informational materials.
    It deals with affairs between countries and IRGC is not a country so the BA doesn’t apply.

    Also, the suggestion that the US could influence Iran thought with some sort of human rights mumbo-jumbo is not credible based on what Persians know about US behavior.
    IOW the exchange of ideas has NOT long made American foreign policy great. American foreign policy is a disaster by any measure, especially with Iran which the US has picked on for forty years or more.

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