WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama moved to tighten sanctions on Syria and Iran on Monday by taking aim at those who provide their authoritarian governments with technology to track down dissidents for abuse, torture or death.
The measures underscored the role that computers, social media and cellphones have played in the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, not just in organizing resistance to entrenched leaders but also in helping security services crack down on protesters. The president’s action is meant to put on notice individuals and companies that provide the technology that enables human rights abuses.
The announcement came as Obama continues to search for a more effective response to the killings in Syria, where more than 9,000 people have died over the past year as the government of President Bashar Assad has tried to suppress a popular uprising. Critics have described Obama’s response as too passive and have called for more robust action to halt the violence.
Obama argued Monday that the focus on technology reflected an ever-widening set of actions that would eventually stop Assad.
“These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them,” Obama said in a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “It’s one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come, the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people.”
The new measures reflect the rapidly evolving nature of the political struggles in the Middle East.
“I’m sure countries like Sudan, Syria and others are watching closely what’s happening on Facebook,” said Michael Abramowitz, director of the Holocaust museum’s Committee on Conscience. “They don’t need to send plainclothes men to follow activists anymore. They can follow them online.”
Obama made the announcement at the emotionally symbolic museum after touring the exhibits alongside Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Wiesel, invoking the Holocaust, used the occasion to implore Obama to stand against Assad and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
“Have we learned anything from it?” Wiesel said. “If so, how is that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president?”
Obama, who has been criticized over his Israel policy, presented himself as a staunch defender of the Jewish state and vowed to counter the threat to it posed by Iran.
“The United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” he said.
The executive orders, which Obama signed Sunday and were first reported by The Washington Post, authorize financial and travel restrictions against those who aid the Syrian and Iranian governments in using technology to hunt down their own citizens.