Musk says he’s ‘activating Starlink’ in Iran as its government blocks the internet to stop spreading protests

Elon Musk said he was 'activating Starlink' in Iran over the weekend after the U.S. granted sanctions exemptions to companies providing digital services.
Rafael Henrique—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Elon Musk said he would activate his Starlink satellite internet service in Iran in response to news that the U.S. Treasury would grant special permission for companies to provide internet services to the country.

Iranians are suffering widespread internet outages as Iran’s government tries to quell widespread antigovernment protests. Authorities have blocked access to services like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Skype. (Other foreign social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok were already blocked.)

Iran’s protests began on Sept. 16 after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the country’s “morality police” for violating rules on dress code. Amini’s death sparked widespread demonstrations, as Iranians vented frustrations with the country’s dress code, limits to personal freedoms, and economic stagnation.

Protests have turned into deadly clashes between police and demonstrators: Iranian state media say that 41 people have died in the demonstrations thus far, while foreign NGOs give higher figures.

Sanctions exemptions

On Friday the U.S. said companies providing cloud computing, social media, and video conferencing would be exempt from sanctions. Sanctions bar most foreign businesses from operating in Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter that the exceptions were meant to “advance internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people,” and to help them “counter the Iranian government’s censorship.”

Musk said he would activate Starlink to Iran in a reply to Blinken’s tweet. Musk first suggested that he wanted a sanctions exemption for Starlink on Sept. 19.

Starlink is not the only service trying to restore internet access to 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 Strarlink use

This is not the first time the SpaceX CEO has offered to turn on satellite internet for other communities in emergency situations. In late February, Musk activated Starlink in the Pacific Island of Tonga after a massive volcanic eruption cut off the country’s internet access. Musk also delivered thousands of Starlink terminals to Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. Ukrainians, including soldiers, have used Starlink to keep communication lines open even as the war takes out internet and mobile networks. 

But while the Ukrainian government publicly solicited Musk’s help, the Iranian government is unlikely to cooperate with ordinary Iranians trying to import terminals to connect with SpaceX’s satellite internet network. “Iran’s regime wants to keep the Internet off so it can repress people in the dark,” tweeted Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Sadjapour also tweeted that Musk confirmed to him that Starlink is now active for any Iranian with a Starlink terminal.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nuclear negotiations

Washington’s reaction to the protests may affect ongoing negotiations between U.S. and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, which U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman characterized as a “stalemate” last week to the Washington Post. On Thursday, the U.S. placed sanctions on the Gasht-e-Ershad—Iran’s “morality police”—freezing their U.S.-based assets. 

On CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that an offer to end some sanctions on Iran in exchange for a halt to the country’s nuclear program was still on the table, despite the protests.

“The fact that we are in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program is in no way impacting our willingness and our vehemence in speaking out about what is happening on the streets of Iran,” said Sullivan.

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