The National Iranian American Council on Thursday joined the Council of American-Islamic Relations in denouncing Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and asserted that Apple Store employees who have refused to sell iPads and other products to customers speaking Farsi, the language of Iran, have been "clearly engaging in racial profiling."
Referring to U.S. sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue, the NIAC alleged in a statement that Apple stores are "overzealously enforcing the sanctions, which do not prohibit the sale of products to Iranian-Americans or Iranian visa-holders in the United States," and accused Apple Store employees of "singling out Persian-speakers for interrogation about how they intend to use Apple products ... clearly engaging in racial profiling."
On Wednesday, NIAC published an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook decrying the actions of the Apple Store employees.
"The Iranian-American community is deeply concerned and outraged that Apple employees at different Apple Stores have repeatedly refused to sell products to customers solely on the basis of their Persian ethnicity," the letter from NIAC President Dr. Trita Parsi said.
The letter calls on Cook to immediately intervene to improve the training of Apple Store employees "to ensure such discrimination does not continue."
The allegations of discrimination against people of Iranian descent may turn into a PR crisis for Apple, a specter raised by NIAC. "By denying service to Iranian-American and Iranian customers seeking to purchase its products for legal purposes on the basis of ethnicity, Apple is harming both its corporate reputation and deeply insulting and hurting the Iranian-American community," the open letter said.
Council of American-Islamic Relations representative Ibrahim Hooper confirmed Thursday his organization is in contact with Apple regarding the allegations and is working to elicit an official statement. However, there was no word about whether those talks have been successful.
The Permanent Iranian Mission to the U.N. in New York said that it couldn't comment.
National Public Radio reported on its blog Wednesday that Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple returned its call to say "no comment."
Calls to Apple haven't been returned. The company hasn't issued a statement. An employee of the North Point Mall Apple Store in Alpharetta, Ga., where the incident allegedly took place, said employees weren't authorized to speak to the press.
CAIR says it knows of at least one more case in which customers have been refused service in Apple stores because they spoke Farsi. CAIR is investigating other possible instances.
"One woman, a U.S. citizen and University of Georgia student, said an Apple employee refused to sell her an iPad [last] Thursday after hearing her and a relative talking," the CAIR statement said. "An Apple Store manager reportedly cited a policy prohibiting sales to Iran."
"When we said 'Farsi, I'm from Iran,' he said, 'I just can't sell this to you. Our countries have bad relations'," the woman, Sahar Sabet, said according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The store's manager later showed a local TV channel a copy of Apple's policy, which prohibits the export, sale or supply of Apple products to Iran without explicit government approval.
An Apple representative reportedly later apologized to Sabet and told her she could buy the iPad through the company's online store. Apple maintains 363 retail stores in 13 countries, as well as the online channel.
"Apple must revise its policies to ensure that customers do not face discriminatory treatment based on their religion, ethnicity or national origin. If the actions of these Apple employees reflected company policy, that policy must be changed and all employees retrained," CAIR national executive director Nihad Awad said.
Awad noted that not selling embargoed items like iPads or laptops to Farsi speakers "would be like not selling the same items to Spanish-speakers because they might be from Cuba."
In that case, the individual in question was an Iranian student in the U.S. on a student visa, according to a note on Export Law Blog. However, "you can't sell anything to an Iranian in the United States if you have any reason to believe that the item might be exported back to Iran by the purchaser." Moreover, export laws may prohibit the transfer of technology to Iranian citizens regardless of their visa status. Export Law Blog noted that because of an oddity of export law, iPads, iPhones and MacBooks aren't among those items.
"Apple is free to sell them away to Iranians in the United States unless, of course, it has reason to believe that the Iranian is going to ship the goods back to Iran," Export Law Blog said.
NIAC asserted similarly in its open letter to Cook that while U.S. sanctions on Iran prohibit the export of Apple products to Iran or to people that plan on exporting them to Iran, "U.S. sanctions laws do not prohibit the sale of products to Iranian-Americans or Iranian visa-holders in the United States."
However, NIAC did state in its Thursday analysis that "sending an iPhone to Iran is illegal, even as a gift," despite the ready availability of illegally imported phones in the embargoed nation. "Likewise, it would be illegal for an Iranian student moving back to Iran to return with the iPhone."
An open question is who in the Apple hierarchy may have determined whether the company believes Iranian citizens in the U.S. legally intend to export goods to Iran
Apple shares closed down $8.08 at 577.66 on Thursday.
To contact the editor, e-mail: