Enrichment process

WoW: The latest battleground for America and Iran

Along with not selling them guns, germs or steel, it seems that American industry is no longer able to supply Iran with level 55 Night Elf warriors. According to the BBC, World of Warcraft (WoW) addicts in the Islamic Republic woke up recently to find that their access was blocked. Initially this was without explanation, but eventually it emerged that WoW had fallen foul of American sanctions, which forbid firms from doing business with Iran.

After being hammered on gamer forums for the vanishing virtual world, the power behind WoW, Blizzard Entertainment, eventually posted a response that pointed the finger back at Washington:

“…United States trade restrictions and economic sanction laws prohibit Blizzard from doing business with residents of certain nations, including Iran… This week, Blizzard tightened up its procedures to ensure compliance with these laws, and players connecting from the affected nations are restricted from access to Blizzard games and services…We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and will happily lift these restrictions as soon as US law allows.”

It might be a long wait in the cyber cafes of Tehran for that then.

Iranians can no longer join the party. Wikimedia

The sudden block on providing gaming accounts to Iranians illustrates the difficulty in tailoring sanctions to fit the realities of international commerce in 2012. Technically Blizzard should have never been providing WoW access to Iranians in the first place, since the country has listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1984, and has been the subject of specific and ever increasing financial and trade embargoes since then.

The trouble is that most of these bans discuss tangible commodities, the sort of things that can be imported or exported. The petroleum industry is the main target here, but there are also bans on defence and aviation gear, and even small scale trading in stuff like pistachios and rugs can be roped into the prohibitions. Financial transactions with Iranian banks are also affected.

Further complication might be added (and I’ll leave this to the trade lawyers) by the fact that Iran’s telco infrastructure is owned and strictly controlled by the state, meaning that when gamers were logged on to WoW, they and Blizzard were making a transaction that involved and benefitted the Iranian government: a big no-no under the various US acts and Executive Orders.

There are plenty of grey areas here, since much of the legal mumbo-jumbo is not particularly set up to deal with online gaming involving micro-transactions with private individuals. But given the alacrity with which Blizzard suddenly pulled the plug, it’s obvious that someone has had a word with them and the balance sheet didn’t warrant fighting it out in court.

One bit of fallout from the sudden cancellation of Iranian accounts was the conspiracy that it is actually the Iranian government that enacted the ban because of the game’s immorality. Screenshots of a supposed message from the Iranian authorities cited the game’s promotion of superstition and mythology, violence and immodest clothing.

All of these factors do appear in WoW, of course. But I’m betting that if anyone in the government does play, they were gaming as some sort of high level priest or cleric. It’s best to stick to what you know after all.