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Charges Reversed: Iran Wins After Olympic Smartphone Snub

A Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone is seen on display at a promotional booth in Pyeongchang.
A Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone is seen on display at a promotional booth in Pyeongchang.

Iran got its first victory in Pyeongchang on February 8 when organizers of this month's Winter Olympics reversed a decision to withhold complimentary smartphones from Iranian and North Korean Olympians.

Tehran was seething and even summoned the South Korean ambassador following news that Olympic sponsor Samsung would be giving out 4,000 "Olympic edition" smartphones but was excluding those two countries' athletes because of UN sanctions.

A report from Iran claimed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was threatening to stop using his Samsung device if the decision was not reversed.

"The IOC will provide mobile phones to all athletes of all countries participating at the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018. These phones contain essential logistical and competition information for the athletes," an IOC spokesperson announced later on February 8, according to Reuters.

"Regarding Iran, we can confirm that all participants will be able to keep the phones," the spokesperson added. "Regarding North Korea, all participants are requested not to take the phones back to their home country."

Iran is sending four competitors to Pyeongchang.

Samsung opened a new sales center in central Tehran in February, part of an effort that has reportedly made it the leading smartphone provider in a country of 80 million people.

Organizers in Pyeongchang cited UN sanctions in singling out Iranians and North Koreans to forgo the $1,100 phones, but it was unclear if the ultimate decision was made by the South Korean manufacturer or Olympic officials.

“The [South Korean] ambassador was cautioned at the meeting that if Samsung does not apologize for its 'unwise' move, the issue will seriously affect trade relations of the Korean company with Iran," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by official government news agency IRNA of the summoning of Seoul's envoy in Tehran.

He added that the exclusion of Iranians was "unethical" and "violates the spirit of the Olympic Games."

IRNA quoted an anonymous source in the ministry as saying the move had prompted a boycott ultimatum by Iran's top diplomat.

"If Samsung Electronics Co. does not withdraw its decision... Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will not use Samsung anymore, as he has it now as his cell phone," an unnamed informed source was quoted as saying by IRNA.

The Iranian National Olympic Committee said it had sent two letters to Samsung calling for an apology to Iranian athletes.

"The smartphone is not an issue; what matters is the dignity of our athletes," Shahrokh Shahnazi, the head of Iran’s National Olympics Committee, said. "We’re not like North Korea in this regard for them to treat us like this; we’re not facing specific sanctions."

UN nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were swept aside after a landmark deal with world powers in 2015, although a number of U.S. and EU sanctions and other restrictions remain in place over rights issues, terrorism allegations, and rights issues.

North Korea remains subject to sanctions by the UN Security Council, China, the United States, and a number of other countries over its nuclear weapons program.

The Olympic dispute broke after reports that Samsung was handing out the devices to thousands of athletes in Pyeongchang and to International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials free of charge but would exclude Iranian and North Korean athletes.

A Pyeongchang organizing committee spokeswoman told AFP on January 7: "North Korean and Iranian athletes will be excluded because of existing UN sanctions" against the two countries.

Samsung’s press office did not return queries from RFE/RL about the specific sanctions that prompted the initial decision.

Iranians took to Twitter to express outrage over the decision, which they described as discriminatory and insulting.

Some called for a ban on Samsung products, which domestic reports say are used by more than half of Iran's mobile users.

"Iranian athletes will not become rich or poor with a Samsung smartphone. But with this [decision], Samsung has committed the worst attack against its brand in Iran," journalist Sadeq Hosseini tweeted with the hastags #No2Samsung and #BanSamsung.

"While #samsung is selling millions of phones in Iran, they refused to give gifts to Iranian Athletes in #WinterOlympics2018 with the excuse of UN sanctions. This is shameful and disrespectful to Iranian Athletes,” Twitter user Farid Sobhani wrote alongside the hashtag #bansamsung.

Others had suggested that calls for an Iranian ban on Samsung smartphones had its downside.

“#BanSamsung is a good trend. But the reality is that we’re tweeting this hashtag with Samsungs,” tweeted Sadegh Nikoo.

One of Samsung’s key mobile-device competitors, Apple, is not officially represented in Iran due to U.S. sanctions. But many Iranians own iPhones or other Apple products purchased on the black market or abroad.

"Samsung has penetrated deep into the Iranian establishment," London-based Internet Freedom activist Nariman Gharib tweeted with a photo that appeared to show the son of Iranian Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi using a Samsung on the way to the holy city of Karbala, in Iraq.

"Then some friends talk about banning Samsung," Gharib, who works at the Persian-language Manoto TV channel, added.

Iranian authorities routinely block foreign TV and radio broadcasts, as well as access to popular Internet tools like encrypted messaging apps and Western social media, which they blame for spreading Western values and undermining Iran's government.

Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this report.