The United States was set to relax sanctions on Iran on Thursday to allow American companies to sell mobile phones, software and other technology used for personal communications to Iranians, two U.S. officials said.
The move, expected later on Thursday, will allow Iranians to get access to the latest Apple phones and newest software that have only been available on Tehran's black market since sanctions were first imposed in 1992.
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The U.S. has ramped up tough measures against Iran in recent years to slow development of the Islamic Republic's disputed nuclear program, blacklisting a wide range of Iranian companies and government officials.
The United States believes Iran is enriching uranium to levels that could be used in nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
The easing of sanctions on technology may be an attempt by the U.S. government to develop goodwill with Iranian citizens before the Iranian national elections next month.
Social media played a big role in the wake of Iran's disputed 2009 presidential elections, used by the opposition "Green Movement" to marshal global attention to their cause, and later inspiring protesters in the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
The U.S. government first eased some technology restrictions after the election in 2010, allowing U.S. companies to export to Iran some basic software and free Internet services such as chat and email.
But the move on Thursday goes further, allowing companies to sell software and hardware to Iranian citizens, Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs at the U.S. State Department, said in an interview on the BBC Persian service late on Wednesday.
"We have no desire to cut off communications," she said in the interview, which first announced the looser rules. "We in fact want to encourage communications in every way we can."
The English transcript from Sherman's interview was provided by the National Iranian American Council, a non-profit group that has long urged the U.S. government to ease restrictions on Iran that hurt ordinary citizens but do little to hinder the government's actions.
(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov, additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Doina Chiacu)