Tehran, Iran – To the United States, he is a criminal and a threat to national security. To Iranians cut off from the international financial system by US sanctions, he was an invaluable provider of services many people in other countries take for granted.
Last week, Iranian citizen Sajjad Shahidian, better known in Iran as Soheil Shahidi, was sentenced to 23 months in prison by a US federal court in Minneapolis, Minnesota for his role in operating Payment24 – an online financial services company prosecutors say helped Iranians conduct transactions with US-based businesses prohibited under sanctions.
The 33-year-old founder and former CEO of the now-defunct Payment24, Shahidian pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to defraud the US.
US prosecutors alleged that between 2009 and 2018, Shahidian and another Payment24 executive helped Iranian clients make online purchases from US-based businesses by offering a package that included a PayPal account, a fraudulent “ID card and address receipt”, a remote IP address from the United Arab Emirates and a Visa gift card.
Many of the services the platform facilitated are routine in countries that do not land on Washington’s economic blacklist; helping freelancers accept payment for their services in foreign currencies; enabling students studying abroad to pay for international university admission tests and tuition fees; helping businesses buy computer software licences from the US-based firms.
Certainly I don’t regard Soheil Shahidi as a criminal
Shahidian was in London in November 2018 when he was arrested by the British police on behalf of US authorities in a surprise move. In May 2020, he was extradited to the US on money laundering, wire fraud, identity theft, and conspiracy charges.
After Shahidian was sentenced earlier this month, US Attorney Erica MacDonald said Payment24 engaged in actions that are “criminal and threaten our national security interests”, adding that the ruling should send a clear message to others who wish to follow in his footsteps.
But not everyone agrees with the narrative that Shahidian is a criminal.
Iranian executive Reza Ghorbani says he met Shahidian several times and knew him as a bright member of the fervent local startup scene.
“Certainly I don’t regard Soheil Shahidi as a criminal and a threat to any country’s national security,” the CEO of Way2Pay, a media and publishing company focused on financial technology, told Al Jazeera.
“He was simply someone who was trying to use technology to help people wire money internationally, something innovative businesses engage in all over the globe and it’s called remittance.”
Since the US sanctions were first imposed on Iran shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, ordinary Iranians have been unable to harness common cross-border payment methods, such as internationally accepted credit cards, freely and easily.
Over the years, successive rounds of sanctions left the country more isolated.
Following the 2016 implementation of a landmark nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers that lifted sanctions in exchange for curbs on the country’s nuclear programme, there were hopes Iran would be reintegrated into the global financial system.
But the election of US President Donald Trump dashed those hopes.
In May 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement Trump called “the worst deal ever”, and began unleashing a torrent of sanctions to coerce Iran back to the negotiating table.
Iran has not bent to Washington’s will, even as sanctions continue unabated during the coronavirus pandemic.
Just like many other places, Iranian people try to use innovative technology tools
The latest round imposed earlier this month saw 18 Iranian banks blacklisted, including those that facilitate humanitarian trade transactions – effectively cutting off Iran’s entire financial sector from the global economy.
While the Trump administration maintains that the sanctions are meant to harm the Iranian “regime”, ordinary citizens have borne the brunt of the pain.
In the past two years, a number of major international technology firms and even gaming companies have locked-out Iran-based users for fear of falling afoul of US sanctions, say experts.
“Just like many other places, Iranian people try to use innovative technology tools, so it is unacceptable to penalise the people of a country for using something that is their right because of limitations cruelly implemented by another government,” Way2Pay’s Ghorbani said.
Last week, the Farsi Twitter account of the US State Department published a mug shot of Shahidian, warning, “As we have always said, no action is worth violating US sanctions.”
The warning was not well received by Pouria, a 28-year-old student now living in the UK who used the services of a company similar to Payment24 to facilitate his move abroad.
“The Americans are proudly bragging about punishing a guy who helped families send money to their kids abroad or let students sign up for international science exams,” he told Al Jazeera, asking that his surname be withheld to protect his privacy.
The Americans are proudly bragging about punishing a guy who helped families send money to their kids abroad
“Yes, sanctions are not aimed at ordinary people at all!” he added sarcastically.
The warning also failed to dissuade a chief executive of a private company with a similar mandate to Payment24 that is now active in several cities in Iran.
“Unfortunately the US imposes harsher sanctions on the Iranian people every day in a bullying manner, making ordinary Iranians’ access to international tools increasingly difficult,” the CEO told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
The executive plans to keep his business up and running, he says, because he believes his firm is performing a valuable service.
“You can’t say someone who flouts expansive sanctions that prevent everyday use of common tools is doing something wrong,” he said. “It would be like throwing someone innocent in prison and branding them a criminal and condemning them again if they attempt to escape.”