Elon Musk’s Starlink has activated its satellite broadband service in Iran after the US allowed private companies to offer uncensored internet access to the country amid protests that caused more than 40 deaths.
Open internet access follows the activation of Starlink in Ukraine earlier this year, as that country’s communications networks were disrupted by the Russian invasion.
Starlink is the first of a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite networks designed to deliver high-bandwidth internet connections directly to individual users from space. Starlink users can bypass a country’s terrestrial communications networks, freeing themselves from internet censorship.
However, a special terminal is needed to receive a signal from Starlink’s satellite constellation 500 km above Earth. The terminals include a 20-inch satellite dish that ships in a package about the size of two pizza boxes stacked on top of each other.
Last week, Musk told the Financial Times he was ready to turn on the Starlink service in both Iran and Cuba if US sanctions on doing business in those countries were eased.
“Obviously, the Iranian government will not approve this,” Musk said of the Starlink service. “It would require someone to actually buy a terminal and smuggle it into Iran, but they would be taking a risk because the government won’t be happy with that.”
Forty-one people have died so far in weeks of protests that erupted in Iran following the death in custody of a young woman accused of not wearing the hijab, according to an “unofficial” figure broadcast on state television. Iranian authorities blocked access to Instagram and WhatsApp last week, before the US Treasury announced the easing of restrictions.
On Sunday, Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter that Musk had confirmed to him that “Starlink is now activated in Iran.” Musk added, “If someone can bring terminals to Iran, they will work.”
The US State Department on Friday relaxed sanctions that had prevented the operation of Internet services and communication networks in Iran.
Under the new guidelines, US tech companies can provide secure platforms and services in Iran without conflicting with restrictions that normally prevent doing business with Iran. They will also allow the export of private satellite internet equipment, which could include Musk’s Starlink service.
A senior administration official said the National Security Council, Treasury Department and other US officials spoke to Starlink to discuss deploying the service in Tehran.
“We encourage all methods of expanding and maintaining Internet access in Iran,” the official said. “We broadly support the private sector helping Iranians connect, and we’re taking our own steps to help.”
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control will also prioritize requests for specific licenses or permits for internet freedom-related businesses in Iran.
“If SpaceX should determine that some activities targeting Iranians require a specific license, Ofac would welcome this and give it priority.” If SpaceX determines that its activities are already authorized and has questions, Ofac also welcomes this commitment,” said a State Department spokesman.
Former officials said Starlink’s operations in Iran may require additional permits beyond those granted by the Treasury and State Departments on Friday.
“A lot of this was geared towards Iranians getting access to the VPNs and things like that to tunnel out — to make sure there were platforms available for them to communicate with,” said Brian O’Toole, a nonresident Atlantic Council Senior Fellow. who was formerly the senior adviser on sanctions at the US Treasury Department.
Assuming that smuggling large quantities of Starlink devices into Iran is not feasible, entry into the country could require some coordination with Iran. “In general, anything that has real overlap with the Iranian government is likely to require a special license,” O’Toole said.
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