On November 8th, five Swedish parliamentarians published a statement calling on "the European Union and governments around the world to implement strict export controls that prohibit the sale of surveillance equipment and tracking software to the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Led by Nima Gholam Ali Pour, an Iranian-born member of Sweden's parliament (Riksdag), the signatories condemned the Iranian regime's use of "intrusive mass surveillance technologies" to "disrupt peaceful assemblies and enforce oppressive modesty laws."
The open letter comes as international attention to Iranian protests has diminished in response to Israel's war with Hamas – even as news reports detail how Iran's regime funds, arms, and trains Hamas fighters. However, protecting and empowering Iran's opposition may offer the clearest pathway to regime change, and by extension, disrupting Tehran's ability to export terrorism abroad.
"Regime change in Iran is the most effective way to neutralize the mullahs and their covert and overt campaigns in the region," Mr. Gholam Ali Pour said when asked how demonstrations in Iran impact the Middle East, adding that Iranians view "the mullah's expansionism in the region" as "a waste of resources."
Beginning in September 2022, Iran was gripped with nationwide, women-led protests following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student who was forcibly detained for improperly wearing her hijab. Iran's regime reacted to the months-long demonstrations by orchestrating a brutal crackdown, arresting thousands and subjecting peaceful protestors to torture and execution.
Mr. Gholam Ali Pour and his colleagues, who each hail from the right-wing Sweden Democrats party, referenced an Aug. 6 investigative report from the German broadcaster ARD. The report, which included interviews with Iranian activists, detailed how Iranian security forces used advanced "surveillance technologies purchased from European companies" to crush demonstrations and persecute Iranian women.
"These technologies form a crucial component of Tehran's extensive surveillance network, which the theocratic regime uses to track political dissidents and suppress public criticism," the MPs wrote.
According to ARD, the German manufacturing giant Bosch sold 8,000 closed-circuit television cameras to Iran's regime between 2016 and 2018. Iranian activists showed ARD images of Bosch cameras and software used to monitor public spaces.
ARD claims that Bosch cameras can be outfitted with "intelligent tracking," an AI-based technology that allows for monitoring of vehicle and foot traffic. The parliamentary letter includes the account of an Iranian activist who described how the regime deploys cameras that issue an alarm whenever more than five to ten people gather in public, prompting security forces to arrive "'within minutes'" to break up demonstrations.
The letter also points to an Amnesty International report, which "documented evidence of Iranian women driving through high traffic areas who received text messages from state security warning them about fines for improper wear of headscarves." The women were identified through "facial recognition" software, according to Amnesty, a biometrics technology that maps facial features and compares unique identifiers to images in a massive database.
"The authorities are always watching so your behavior is in accordance with their idea of islam," Gholam Ali Pour said in an interview. "The regime in Tehran will use surveillance technology in the worst possible ways," he added.
Germany isn't the only country to host businesses that profit off the sale of surveillance equipment to Iran. Reporting for Iran International, Benjamin Weinthal described in August how Iran's regime purchased video cameras from companies in Sweden and the Netherlands, while the Danish security company Milestone Systems reportedly delivered video management software to Iran that is capable of facial recognition.
Both intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations have raised alarms concerning the use of surveillance technologies as an instrument of state oppression. In August 2022, the United Nations released a study warning about the "human rights" concerns associated with the systematic monitoring of public places using biometrics data. The study called for "data privacy legislation" and "robust well-tailored export control regimes applicable to surveillance technologies."
In August, Mr. Gholam Ali Pour sent a formal Parliamentary Question to Tobias Billström, Sweden's foreign minister, asking if he planned "to take action in the European Union and other forums" to ban the sale of surveillance technology to Iran, in light of the news reports concerning Bosch and other European companies.
Billström answered by stating that "Swedish trade with Iran is currently very limited." As to the EU, the foreign minister pointed to the "sanctions regime against human rights abuses in Iran, established in 2011," which he claimed "includes a ban on selling or transferring certain equipment that could be used for repression or surveillance to Iran."
However, EU sanctions against Iran, including the 2011 ban on "equipment which might be used for internal repression," deal predominantly with military hardware, as well as devices and software used in the "monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications." The sale of surveillance cameras and facial recognition technologies are not explicitly forbidden.
For now, the law appears to be lagging behind advancements in technology, which offer abusive and tyrannical governments Orwellian control of their societies. With rising tensions in the Middle East, the EU should immediately adopt the Swedish MPs recommendations and proscribe European businesses from selling surveillance equipment to Iran. Otherwise, profit-seeking corporations stand to damage and impede the greatest natural bulwark against Iran's military adventurism: the Iranian people.
Benjamin Baird is the Director of MEF Action, and advocacy project of the Middle East Forum.