There is bipartisan consensus in Congress on the need to support the nonviolent protesters in Iran who are calling for an end to corruption and dictatorship. One important way to protect the protesters from surveillance and punishment would be to sanction Iran’s largest telecommunications enterprise, the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI).
Through a series of front companies and subsidiaries, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei effectively control TCI. Through their business arms, the Guard and the supreme leader bought TCI from the government in September 2009 after a highly contentious bidding process in which the government disqualified the only non-IRGC bidder at the last minute. Since it is owned by the IRGC, TCI may be eligible for designation under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, which directed the president to impose sanctions on the IRGC as a whole for supporting terrorism – which he did in October 2017.
TCI’s role in human rights abuses also opens the company up to sanctions under the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, which authorizes the sanctioning of individuals or entities which have provided surveillance technology to the Iranian regime.
By owning Iran’s largest telecom company, the IRGC and the supreme leader gain access to sensitive monitoring technology that facilitates surveillance of Iranian dissidents. In the aftermath of the 2009 Green Movement protests, many of the jailed activists learned from their interrogators that they had been apprehended after authorities traced the location of their cell phones. In 2012, China’s Shenzen-based ZTE Corporation sold “a powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications” to TCI, according to a Reuters report.
The Iranian regime uses TCI and related companies not only to surveil, monitor, and abuse its own citizens, but also to aid repression in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. In 2015, Syrian rebels captured telecommunication devices made by Mobin Electronic (a subsidiary of TCI’s main shareholder) from Iranian-led forces in the vicinity of Aleppo. Moreover, the Assad regime awarded TCI’s own subsidiary, the Mobile Telecommunications Company of Iran, a contract to become Syria’s third mobile operator. This contract rewards the IRGC for supporting the Assad regime’s malign activities while enabling it to expand its monitoring and surveillance operations to a foreign country.
Designation of TCI can pressure the IRGC and supreme leader to sell their shares of this company. Given the strategic importance of the telecommunication sector, its economic value to Tehran, and the presence of TCI on Tehran Stock Exchange which makes it subject to the market forces and continuous price movement, the government may not be able to afford to let the sanctions stand and may need to take drastic actions to prove that the company is privately-owned and not involved in human rights abuses.
In his October 2017 address on U.S. policy toward Iran, President Trump denounced the IRGC as the “Iranian Supreme Leader’s corrupt personal terror force and militia” and condemned its “hijack[ing of] large portions of Iran’s economy.” Sanctioning TCI would cut to the heart of both of these challenges.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a fellow. Follow Toby on Twitter @tobydersh; Follow Saeed on Twitter @SGhasseminejad.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
 TCI and the IRGC-controlled Mehr Eghtesad hold most senior positions on the board of the Mobile Telecommunications Company of Iran. The supreme leader-controlled Tadbir Group controls another seat as does Etemad Mobin Development Company. “شرکت ارتباطات سیار ایران – هیئت مدیره (Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran – Board of Directors), Tehran Stock Exchange, accessed January 15, 2018. (http://www.tsetmc.com/Loader.aspx?ParTree=151311&i=68635710163497089#)