Lots of people love Apple, but not Sahar Sabet and Zack Jafarzadeh, two potential customers at different Apple stores in Georgia who were prevented from buying an iPad and iPhone, respectively, for fear that they (the Apple products) will end up in Iran. Iran and the United States are not close, which is why the U.S. holds a complete embargo against Iran, placing it in the company of Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. This means that U.S. goods, like iPads and other Apple products, cannot be exported or sold from the United States to these countries, and a U.S. person is prohibited from doing the same no matter where they are in the world.
It was evidently for this reason that an Apple store in Alpharetta, Georgia recently refused to sell an iPad to Sabet because she was speaking Farsi (the official language of Iran) in the store to her uncle. A similar incident occurred at an Apple store in Atlanta, where Jafarzadeh, who is from Virginia, was blocked from helping his friend from Iran (a student in the U.S. on a visa) buy an iPhone. If this all seems a little absurd, it’s because it is.
It is unclear exactly how any given Apple product should be treated given the U.S. embargo against Iran. Iran is not a possible market for Apple products of course, meaning the company couldn’t export or otherwise supply their products to Iran, but this policy shouldn’t have prevented Sahar Sabet, the girl speaking Farsi to her uncle, from buying an iPad. Sabet is a U.S. citizen, and even if she weren’t this fact alone presumably shouldn’t prevent her from buying an iPad or some other U.S. product. (Non-citizens of the U.S. who are in this country, even if they are from Iran, are not be prevented from buying everything – they obviously at least need to be able to buy goods for survival while here.)
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Here is the U.S. policy listed on the Apple website: “The exportation, reexportation, sale or supply, directly or indirectly, from the United States, or by a U.S. person wherever located, of any Apple goods, software, technology (including technical data), or services to any of these countries [i.e., Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria] is strictly prohibited without prior authorization by the U.S. Government.” This would appear to mean that Sabet couldn’t buy an iPad and then “supply” it to Iran, but she should be able to buy the iPad to begin with, and why an Apple store would refuse to sell her one is perplexing. The same applies to the case involving the Virginia customer trying to help the Iranian student get an iPhone. These customers were in the U.S. and were merely trying to buy products – most stores wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) block the sale of these products for reasons related to a customer’s national origins.
To be sure, the details in these particular incidents are unique and ambiguous. It’s not clear what either customer was ultimately going to do with their Apple gadgets, nor is it known exactly what these customers told the Apple store. In the case involving Sabet, she was dealing with a single employee who is from Iran. (This, by the way, is why he recognized the Farsi she was speaking. Finer irony couldn’t be invented: the Apple employee who refused to sell the iPad to Sabet was only able to do so because he was from Iran, where Farsi is spoken.) Sabet’s case is complicated by the fact that she was apparently buying the iPad as a gift for her cousin in Iran, which could be prohibited.
Because the details of these cases are unclear, we’re of course not in a position to condemn Apple in general as some sort of bigoted organization that refuses to sell to people of certain nationalities. However, the embargo policies need to be more clear – who can buy what, and where can people take their purchases? – and in any case it doesn’t seem like a good idea for the enforcement of U.S. trade policies to rest in the hands of any given Apple store employee, Iranian or otherwise, and it certainly isn’t a good idea to profile customers on the basis of their national origin.
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