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Iranophobia 2.0

June 21, 2012

According to a local news channel a woman was denied her purchase of an iPad at the Apple Store in Alpharetta, Georgia because of her Iranian origin. When an employee heard Sahar Sabet speaking Persian‡ he refused to sell them an Apple product.

When we said ‘Farsi, I’m from Iran,’ he said, ‘I just can’t sell this to you. Our countries have bad relations.’

Not only was Sabet’s account confirmed by WSBTV’s Amy Napier Viteri (who used an iPhone to film an exchange with the same Apple sales representative that denied Sabet her purchase, reiterating that Apple will not sell to anyone from Iran), but another Iranian had an identical experience. Zack Jafarzadeh tried to buy an iPhone at a mall in Atlanta:

I would say if you’re trying to buy an iPhone, don’t tell them anything about Iran. That would be your best bet.

The Apple legal policy that store managers showed Viteri is merely a compliance document stating U.S. embargoes on prohibited sales with ‘enemy’ nations. It covers commercial exports. To countries. The incident reminded me of an Iranian-American engineering student who tweeted sometime last year that he was asked to leave the classroom during a ‘sensitive’ segment of a course at MIT.

Regardless of American citizenship or permanent residency in a country settled by immigrants, Iranians’ nationalistic loyalty is always under question. The separation barrier between the United States and Iran may form a rough schism but the collective punishment of Iranians is proving to be seamless.

Moments after learning about the events in Georgia I called Apple’s sales line. A representative named Lawrence (who mentioned he had extensive corporate training) told me:

The only stipulation dealing with anyone outside the U.S., if you’re within the continental U.S., the only time [that happens is when] we can’t sell to you because of billing information. That’s the only thing that will inhibit us from taking care of you.

When I told Lawrence that managers at Apple stores told Iranian customers the discrimination was Apple policy, he continued:

I’ve never once heard that we don’t sell to people from Iran, or Iraq. It’s definitely not protocol. [It’s] ridiculous given that we are a global company.

I asked to speak to a corporate supervisor to confirm what he was telling me—that what happened in Georgia took place either on the basis of serious misunderstanding of company policy or that the offending managers were contemptible racists.

From there I was given a direct number to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, CA. A very polite but recalcitrantly hushed manager redirected me again to a media and public relations office. That line was automated—’If you are a journalist on deadline, press 1. If you are not a journalist on deadline, press 2’—so I left a message and wrote a brief query to Apple’s media email.

Dear Apple media and public relations staff,

I am writer with The New Inquiry looking to get confirmation about a disturbing story about Apple. Yesterday WSBTV in Alpharetta, GA, reported that an Iranian-American customer at the Apple Store in North Pointe Mall was denied a product (‘Customer: Apple store denied me iPad for speaking Farsi‘). The employee that refused to sell Sahar Sabet an Apple product (solely on the basis of speaking Persian) confirmed the story with the WSBT reporter, saying the policy ‘always will be to not sell to anyone from Iran.’

U.S. embargoes on Iran specify penalties for selling to countries. Many people are left wondering whether Apple openly or not-so-openly has been denying its products to people who are descendants of those countries.

The sales representative I spoke to earlier today said the allegation is ‘ridiculous given that we are a global company.’

I have two questions: (1) Is it Apple policy to deny the sale of its products to people with origins in U.S.-embargoed countries? (2) What are Apple’s comments about what happened in Alpharetta, GA, and will the woman denied a product based on her origins be restituted in any way?

I look forward to your reply. Thank you for your time.

At this writing, and despite leaving messages on their urgent deck, Apple has not yet replied.

Here is what can be deduced from the incidents despite the company’s radio silence: There is no question that Sabet and Jafarzadeh were racially profiled. Two separate Apple Stores discriminated against them. Preferential treatment on the basis of spoken language and nationality of origin (they were both asked where they were from on account of the language they were speaking in order to deny them a sale) is racial discrimination, period. Having born the brunt of it in large and small ways—as an Iranian growing up in Georgia—the astonishment, anger, and humiliation both Sabet and Jafarzadeh described felt viscerally real.

The Wikipedia entry for ‘Anti-Iranian sentiment‘ is muscular and long. What it doesn’t include are the stories that members of my parents’ generation have passed on to us since at least the late 1970s: harassment and property damage of Iranian-owned stores, job discrimination and denied promotions on the basis of name and origin, and my personal favorite from 1978-9: the removal of the word ‘Persian’ from Persian melon stickers at nationwide grocery chains.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which has called on Apple to change its policy, summarizes official anti-Iranian incidents on their Anti-Discrimination Center page:

  • FBI interrogations of Iranian Americans and members of other Middle Eastern and Muslim communities;
  • FBI investigations based on national origin and or past or present activities related to cultural, national, or religious identities;
  • Security clearances being revoked and denied due to Iranian national origin;
  • Firings, harassment, and other employment and personal discrimination based on bias against Iranian national origin; and
  • Deportations of Iranians based on minor immigration technicalities and other infractions.

One might come to cynically expect the trickle-down discriminatory treatment Iranians (including those with U.S. citizenship, which both Sabet and Jafarzadeh retain) from the government, who views Iran as its number-one enemy. Facing it while picking up an iPhone at the mall is disdain cut from an unexpected cloth.

It is entirely possible that Apple’s employees in the Georgia stores were either mismanaged or misinformed about the company’s compliance policy. If that is the extent of it, Apple must publicly apologize for the racial discrimination that Sabet and Jafarzadeh experienced and make adequate compensation for the humiliating racism they incurred. I sincerely hope that is the extent of it. Yet Apple’s silence on this issue will not make it disappear, just as the company’s exceedingly harsh labor that harm (and even kill) Chinese workers in making those products in the first place has tainted their enormous commercial empire.

Living in the U.S. as an Iranian during an extremely harsh and unforgiving political climate has some benefits, like raising the point that a manufactured ‘nuclear crisis’ does not give this country the right to collectively punish a nation of more than 70 million people. Every so often you are reminded that you can be discounted as a human being while doing it.

_____

‡Note on usage: Persian is to Farsi what Spanish is to español.

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