Imagine if your ethnicity determined which products you were able to buy. Or if sales clerks required you to divulge your ancestry before swiping your credit card.
Some of us don’t have to imagine.
Last month, Sahar Sabet, a 19-year-old Iranian-American woman, was improperly prevented from buying an iPad at an Apple store in Alpharetta, Ga. After she had gone over the various options with two Apple sales clerks, a third clerk, who had overheard Ms. Sabet speaking Persian to her uncle, intervened. He asked what language they were speaking and, when he found out it was the language of Iran, he said she could not buy anything because “our countries do not have good relations” — never mind that she intended to give it to her sister in North Carolina. A local news account had Ms. Sabet describing a cousin in Iran as the intended recipient, an inaccuracy that was propagated last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion article defending Apple’s discriminatory behavior.
An isolated episode could be dismissed as the work of one bigoted, or misguided, employee. But there have been other recent reports of Apple employees refusing to sell to customers of Iranian descent.
In Santa Monica, Calif., two friends looking to buy an iPhone were asked whether they were speaking Persian and promptly informed, “I am sorry, we don’t sell to Persians.” In Sacramento, an Iranian-American man looking to buy Apple products for personal use mentioned that he was also thinking about buying an iPod for his nephew in Iran and was told he could not buy anything, even for himself. An Iranian student in Atlanta, and his Iranian-American friend, were not permitted to buy an iPhone after the friend, under questioning, mentioned that the student planned to return to Iran for the summer.
Apple has not been taken over by xenophobes. The discrimination is one result of trying to enforce flawed and haphazard United States export controls against countries, like Iran, that are under sanctions. Retail employees are left to interpret and implement federal policy, and racial profiling results.
At the moment, nearly all exports to Iran are prohibited. Traveling to Iran with items like computers and smartphones is illegal. Apple’s own policy, stated on its Web site, makes it very clear that its products can’t be sent there.
But it is also illegal in the United States for a private company to discriminate against individuals based on race, color, religion or national origin under the Civil Rights Act. This protection extends of course to retail stores.
Apple officials note that their diverse retail work force includes many multilingual employees — including employees who speak Persian with customers — and deny any discrimination. Apple also says that if employees ask customers how they plan to use a product, it is only to help meet their needs — not to ensure compliance with export laws.
But the message on the ground seems, at the very least, muddled. One Apple employee told my organization, in an electronic message, “a lot of employees, at least in my store, are almost forced to stereotype certain customers that come in due to the policy and fear of losing their job. … It is unfortunate that Apple puts this on their employees.” He continued: “Don’t think it is right given the circumstances. We essentially have to police what a customer is going to be doing with their products, which should be left to police rather than a sales rep.”
Apple retail employees may be “geniuses,” but they are not lawyers or law enforcement officers. Yet because of American pressure on companies to enforce export controls, some Apple employees have turned into vigilante sanctions enforcers.
The Treasury and State Departments have significantly stepped up pressure on private companies and banks in America and around the world to abandon commercial activity with Iran as tensions between the two countries increase. Often, these private entities decide that it is simply not worth the risk of violating sanctions to continue facilitating even perfectly valid transactions.
Meanwhile, goals like Internet freedom, so central to pro-democracy and human rights movements, are being undermined in Iran because companies, including Google, Yahoo and certain Web hosts, deny services to computers with Iranian I.P. addresses.
Notwithstanding such restrictions, Apple products and Internet services are widely used in Iran, as evidenced by the role of technology during the 2009 democracy demonstrations.
Some zealous supporters of sanctions have tried to discredit my organization, which has defended Ms. Sabet and other discrimination victims, by falsely asserting that we support Iran’s repressive regime. My organization does oppose war with Iran, and what we view as ineffective sanctions that punish ordinary Iranians and undermine the democracy movement. But beyond the wisdom of American foreign policy, the issue here is the unfair and perverse impact on some Americans who have no involvement in that policy.
The potential for abuse is great unless companies like Apple enact policies to prevent discrimination, and American policy makers act to stop illegal enforcement activities. Congress and President Obama have ratcheted up sanctions and now must confront the inevitable unintended consequences. Sanctions are no longer just choking off Iran but jeopardizing the values and basic civil liberties of some American citizens.
Jamal Abdi is the policy director at the National Iranian American Council.