Despite not having any stores in the country, Apple’s iPhone has about 11% of the Iranian cellphone market. With that comes a wide array of applications, and while Apple didn’t have an Iranian app store, developers have long just put their apps for the Iranian market elsewhere.
That seems to have come to an end this week, with Apple beginning a “crackdown” on all Iranian applications for the iPhone, claiming that any apps for the market are in violation of US sanctions against Iran. This has shut down a number of key applications, including food delivery services and an Iranian Uber-equivalent.
The legal claim is uncertain. Google doesn’t discriminate against Iranian applications for its Android operating system, and Samsung, a manufacturer of such phones, has a major store inside Iran. Locals are starting an online campaign to try to bring awareness to what Apple is doing, and to encourage them to stop.
In 2013 the US explicitly ended its technology export ban on Iran, and specifically to encourage information-sharing applications getting into the country. At the time, State Department officials said this effectively legalized the export of iPhones to Iran, though Apple still refused to do so.
This might become an uncomfortable situation for Apple in the end. In 2012, an Apple Store garnered controversy in the US when they refused to sell an iPad tablet to a US citizen the clerk identified as being ethnic Iranian, claiming that the sanctions forbade sales of technology even to American citizens of Iranian origin.
This is likely to encourage Iranians to try to find a way around these new restrictions and while in the long run that might be switching to a competing phone company that doesn’t overtly discriminate against them, it’s likely there will be efforts to side-load Iranian applications to end-users in the country.