On a Saturday in mid-August, Iranian entrepreneur Mehdi Nayebi received an email from Apple's App Store Review. His application, AloPeyk, a delivery service in Tehran, had been removed.
He wasn't the only one. About a dozen other Iran-focused apps, including Delion Foods, a meals delivery startup, online store Digikala, Bamilo, an e-commerce marketplace, and ride-hailing app Snapp, were also similarly removed, according to Nayebi, and Delion's co-founder Mahdi Taghizadeh.
"We got removed from App Store overnight, without any sort of warning," said Nayebi. "We had just published a new version with enormous improvements. When users woke up the next morning, they saw the app is not available anymore."
Users can still access the apps on their phones, but cannot download or update from the App Store. Digikala, Bamilo and Snapp did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Apple had no immediate comment.
AloPeyk tried to refute the decision, but instead received an email from Apple, citing trade sanctions enforced by the U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control, according to Nayebi. His team scrambled to create a mobile version within a week that functions in the manner an app would.
Iran's nuclear-related sanctions were lifted last year following its 2015 agreement with world powers, but some U.S. trade and banking sanctions remain, hindering business. While the deal reached under the Obama administration was seen as a milestone for Iran to join international markets and open its doors to foreign investment and technology, the U.S. under President Donald Trump has pushed for more sanctions against Iran.
"Companies incur costs to research, design and develop apps for Android and Apple phones," said Mohammadreza Azali, CEO of TechRasa, a Tehran-based start up and tech news website. "If their app is removed from Apple devices it means that half of the cost they have incurred is gone with the wind."
"It's also a hit in terms of business," he added. "There is an estimated 7 million iPhone holders in the country and their purchasing power is considered as being higher than those of Android users and they have readiness to buy. It's a problem if you can't access that clientele."
Iran has a history of blocking access to websites and networks it deems politically sensitive, such as Twitter. and Facebook. However, the approach has been softening, with President Hassan Rouhani and top members of his cabinet, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, using the platforms to make statements. Iran's new minister of communications has recently announced his intention to end the restrictions.
"We're trying to raise our voice in international media," Taghizadeh said. "We don't have such issues with Android ecosystem," referring to Google's App Store. Taghizadeh, along with at least four others, have started a petition online. They are asking Apple's CEO Tim Cook to help lift the ban.
-- Bloomberg News