Iranians outraged over removal of apps from Google Play store

Comprehensive sanctions prevent Iranians from ordering cabs and food on their phones.

Google followed Apple's move to remove Iranian-developed apps from its store. CREDIT: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo
Google followed Apple's move to remove Iranian-developed apps from its store. CREDIT: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Google Play on Friday removed Iranian apps from its store in compliance with 22-year old U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Those sanctions cover virtually all transactions between the U.S. and Iran, “including the provision of goods, technology, and services,” said Tyler Cullis, an associate attorney at Ferrari & Associates P.C. who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions and export controls.

In this case, Google was providing Iranians with a service by hosting the apps. That put Google — along with Apple, which removed Iranian apps from its store in August — in violation of the sanctions.

“I’m unclear as to why they’d done so up until this time,” said Cullis.

In 2014 President Barack Obama’s administration issued a new license allowing companies such as Apple and Google to open their apps stores to Iranians. The idea was to “win over young Iranians by giving them access to app stores, or Macbooks or tablets,” said Cullis. But that license did not cover hosting apps developed by Iranians.

According to Cullis, sanctions such as the one preventing companies from hosting Iranian-developed apps “really just restrict innocuous activity.”

“You read Iranian Twitter today and everyone is just inflamed…it’s made them angrier than ever…it really antagonizes Iranian youth,” said Cullis.

Google Play opened access to Iranian consumers in 2013.  Around 50 percent of the country of 80 million people are 30 or younger. There are roughly 48 million smartphone users there, making it a lucrative market.

Removal of apps such as ride-hailing app Snapp will likely drive consumers to Iranian startups such as Café Bazaar, a third-party app store available there.

Cullis said Apple and Google could apply for licenses allowing them to host those apps, and those applications would likely be approved by the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Barring that move, it’s unlikely that the comprehensive sanction prohibiting hosting Iranian apps will be relaxed by the administration of President Donald Trump.

Despite recertifying the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Trump signed a new round of sanctions against Iran in July, targeting the country’s ballistic missile program.

The nuclear deal saw Iran curbing its nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions against it being relaxed. Despite assurances from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency (IAEA) that Iran is in full compliance with the terms of the deal, the Trump administration has been looking for ways to break or renegotiate the deal.

Within Iran, Google’s decision to remove the Iranian apps is seen as not just an inconvenience, but as one that could cost jobs in a country with an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent, according to World Bank figures.

One Twitter user, a software architect, wondered what people would do if they lost their jobs as a result of the app removal. He included a poll of low-paying jobs, such as typing and translation and software installation, as possible future employment opportunities for those workers.

“The irony is that you have all these young Iranian entrepreneurs that are really skirting government controls, operating outside bounds, developing apps, letting other young Iranians have access to those apps, and now because the U.S. embargoes are as they are, they have to shut that all down,” said Cullis.

ThinkProgress sought comment on the move from Google, but in an -mailed response, a member of the company’s media team said there would be no official statement other than saying that the decision was “in accordance with export compliance laws.”

He also said that Google would not be seeking a license to host Iranian-developed apps at this time.

Apple removed Iranian apps from its store in late August and was criticized by Iranian officials for removing the apps without any prior warning. The decision also prompted outrage among the country’s estimated 47 million social media users, who responded with petitions and a #stopremovingiranianapps hashtag on Twitter.

Some users pointed out that removing apps only hurts ordinary Iranians and not the government.

A company statement from Apple said, “Under the U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries.”

Iran’s telecommunications minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi responded by saying that Apple should “respect the rights” of Iranian consumers. There were reports that authorities were considering suing Apple for the move.