Are Iranians banned from buying iPads?

A salesman at US Apple store refused to sell an iPad to an Iranian-American woman after overhearing her speak Farsi, provoking a debate about the limits of Western sanctions against Tehran's rulers.

It all started with what many young people across the world want: an iPad.

Sahar Sabet, 19, was at an Apple store in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, with her uncle. He had come from Iran to visit her family, who live in the state.

"I was telling him how much the product was, in Farsi," she told the BBC, referring to the language spoken in Iran and often by Iranian-American exiles.

The unfamiliar sounds caught the salesman's ear; he asked what language they were speaking.

She answered, then told him she was Iranian.

'Complete embargoes'

At that, the salesman told her he could not sell her the iPad, "because Iran and the US don't have good relations with each other", she said.

The store manager and other employees backed their colleague, Ms Sabet said, showing her a written policy that declared: "The US holds complete embargoes against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria."

The policy states that Apple forbids the export of its products to those countries "without prior authorization by the US Government".

Ms Sabet was born in the US - and is therefore an American citizen - and her father has her speak Farsi at home so that she does not forget her mother tongue.

"They didn't ask me whether I was an American citizen or not," she said.

She added: "The guy I spoke to... was at the check-out line. He didn't know anything about me or what I was buying it for. He just asked me 'what language are you speaking?' I just said I'm from Iran. He didn't know anything else."

Later, Ms Sabet called the company customer relations office, which apologised to her and advised her to buy the iPad online instead.

But Ms Sabet, a college student who hopes to attend law school, was not satisfied.

She called Atlanta's television news station WSB-TV, which reported the story.

Risk of liability?

The affair has provoked debate on exactly just how targeted America's "targeted" sanctions against Iran could be.

"Unfortunately, this is part of an escalating pattern in which increasingly broad sanctions on Iran are hitting the wrong people," said Jamal Abdi, a spokesman for the National Iranian American Council, an Iranian-American advocacy group.

A customer tests out an iPad at a store in New York
The iPad is by far the most popular tablet computer on the market

The US sanctions do not restrict sales of products to Iranians living in the US, says John Sullivan, a spokesman for the US Treasury.

"There is absolutely no US policy or law that would prohibit Apple or any other company from selling its products in the US to anyone intending to use the product in the US, including Iranians and Persian speakers," he said.

But Apple could expose itself to legal liability if it sold consumer products in the US knowing they would be sent to Iran, said Farhad Alavi, a Washington lawyer who specialises in international trade.

"The mere fact that a potential customer speaks Persian or Korean is not and cannot in and of itself be sufficient to deduce that those customers will take the goods to Iran or North Korea," Mr Alavi said.

On Thursday, about a dozen activists went to an Apple store in New York and demanded the company stop "profiling" Iranian and Iranian-American consumers.

And in Georgia, other Iranians and Iranian-Americans planned to return to the Alpharetta store and speak ostentatiously in Farsi.

In response, Apple noted in a statement that its sales teams are multilingual and "diversity is an important part of our culture".

"Our retail stores are proud to serve customers from around the world, of every ethnicity," the company said.

"We don't discriminate against anyone."