By Jamal Abdi

Imagine if your ethnicity determined which products you were able to buy. Or if sales clerks required you to divulge your ancestry before swiping your credit card.

Some of us don’t have to imagine.

Last month, Sahar Sabet, a 19-year-old Iranian-American woman, was improperly prevented from buying an iPad at an Apple store in Alpharetta, Ga. After she had gone over the various options with two Apple sales clerks, a third clerk, who had overheard Ms. Sabet speaking Persian to her uncle, intervened. He asked what language they were speaking and, when he found out it was the language of Iran, he said she could not buy anything because “our countries do not have good relations” — never mind that she intended to give it to her sister in North Carolina. A local news account had Ms. Sabet describing a cousin in Iran as the intended recipient, an inaccuracy that was propagated last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion article defending Apple’s discriminatory behavior.

An isolated episode could be dismissed as the work of one bigoted, or misguided, employee. But there have been other recent reports of Apple employees refusing to sell to customers of Iranian descent.

In Santa Monica, Calif., two friends looking to buy an iPhone were asked whether they were speaking Persian and promptly informed, “I am sorry, we don’t sell to Persians.” In Sacramento, an Iranian-American man looking to buy Apple products for personal use mentioned that he was also thinking about buying an iPod for his nephew in Iran and was told he could not buy anything, even for himself. An Iranian student in Atlanta, and his Iranian-American friend, were not permitted to buy an iPhone after the friend, under questioning, mentioned that the student planned to return to Iran for the summer.

Apple has not been taken over by xenophobes. The discrimination is one result of trying to enforce flawed and haphazard United States export controls against countries, like Iran, that are under sanctions. Retail employees are left to interpret and implement federal policy, and racial profiling results.

At the moment, nearly all exports to Iran are prohibited. Traveling to Iran with items like computers and smartphones is illegal. Apple’s own policy, stated on its Web site, makes it very clear that its products can’t be sent there. Read more…

Jamal Abdi is the policy director at the National Iranian American Council.

As published in www.nytimes.com on July 11, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 12, 2012, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Sanctions at the Genius Bar).


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