June 27, 2012

Apple, Iran And An iPad

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com

There´s a popular saying which can explain many a difficult situation. To paraphrase, “Stuff rolls downhill.”

Take, for instance, the latest scandal involving an Atlanta Apple Store and a local student and Iran. For reasons far beyond my understanding or pay grade, Iran and the U.S. do not have the best of relations. As such, the US will not trade with Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan or Syria. These large governments, run by powerful people, have made these sort of decisions. Large corporations, such as Apple, have (rightfully) decided it best to adhere to these embargoes. The situation is already sticky. This policy must be enforced, however Tim Cook certainly isn't going to do it himself.

Thus, the lament of the retail worker. There are plenty of regulations Apple must uphold in addition to their everyday standards. It´s difficult for a worker who gets paid an hourly wage to stick up for all of America, and when it happens, it gets ugly. After all, it´s likely these government mucky-mucks didn´t expect someone paid $11 an hour to have to enforce their laws.

So, when Sahar Sabet, a 19-year old Iranian citizen living in Georgia went to an Apple store to buy an iPad and began speaking Farsi, the Apple store employee was suddenly hit with a stuff-ball which had been rolling downhill through several layers of corporate and government regulations.

Ms. Sabet was visiting the Alpharetta Apple store with her uncle, who was visiting from Iran. They were planning to buy an iPad as a gift for Sabet´s cousin, and the employee overheard them talking in a different language. He then asked them where they were from. Sabet responded she was speaking Farsi, and that she was from Iran.

"When we said 'Farsi, I'm from Iran,' he said, 'I just can't sell this to you. Our countries have bad relations,'" Sabet said in an interview with Atlanta news station WSBTV.

As an explanation, the employee told Sabet and her uncle, “Iran and the U.S. don't have good relations with each other.”

It´s true, and as such, Apple has a policy which reads, “The U.S. holds complete embargoes against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. 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 is strictly prohibited without prior authorization by the U.S. Government.”

Needless to say, this was an incredibly unpleasant scene which ended with Ms. Sabet leaving the store in tears.

"Discrimination. Racially profiled. He didn't have any business asking me what country I was from," Sabet said.

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman gave a comment to Fox News about this incident. Though he questioned the exact events of this situation, he said, "Our retail stores are proud to serve customers from around the world, of every ethnicity. Our store teams are multilingual and diversity is an important part of our culture.”

After hearing this story, The National Iranian American Council is asking Apple to take a second look at their policies regarding these sanctions against Iran.

“Unfortunately, this is part of an escalating pattern in which increasingly broad sanctions on Iran are hitting the wrong people,” said NIAC Policy Director Jamal Abdi. “Some of it is by design of Congress and the Administration, some of it is a lack of clarity about what is permitted, and some of it is over-enforcement of sanctions by private companies worried about running afoul of the law.”

Sadly, in gathering research for this story, Amy Napier Viteri of  WSBTV was able to find another individual who had been refused an Apple product based on their nation of origin. This incident also happened in the Atlanta area. "I would say if you're trying to buy an iPhone, don't tell them anything about Iran. That would be your best bet," said Zack Jafarzadeh. He and his Iranian friend were looking to buy a new iPhone from an Atlanta-area Apple store when an employee approached them, saying they wouldn´t be leaving the store with a new smartphone. "We never talked about him going back to Iran or anything like that. He was just speaking full-fledged Farsi and the representative came back and denied our sale," said Jafarzadeh.

This is, unfortunately, one of those areas where perhaps everything can´t be black and white. The direct letter of the law says the Apple store employee was right to refuse selling the iPad to Ms. Sabet. After all, who knows what could have happened once the iPad reached the cousin in Iran. It´s also just as likely that if Ms. Sabet were sold the iPad, her uncle would have had trouble getting it across customs without the proper U.S. authorization.

On the other hand, a story about a man not being able to get his iPad into Iran wouldn´t have made the same kind of headlines as “Apple Store denied me iPad for speaking Farsi.”

As someone who has plenty of retail experience, I would have either called someone further up the chain of command to make the decision for me, or simply let her buy the thing. After all, Iranian sanctions are far above the pay grade of Apple store employees. They should have realized this situation would have resulted in terrible headlines for a company which is already accustomed to receiving bad press over any kind of snafu. Now, protestors have been visiting Apple stores in New York, asking the company to stop profiling Iranian and Iranian-American customers. Additionally, customers have planned to visit the Alpharetta store in question and speak Farsi with abandon. This one spark could have started a fire which may burn all the way to the top. Given the press, will we see an announcement from Tim Cook this week?

Though distraught, Ms. Sabet still sought to buy the iPad for her cousin and was told by Apple headquarters she could procure one from the online store without any problem.