Is Starbucks imposing its own sanctions on Iran?

Iran's English-language, state-sponsored media service PressTV may have stumbled onto something, in spite of itself. An article published Thursday cites a bizarre YouTube rant by financial analyst and PressTV contributor Mike Stathis (author of recent articles "Jewish Mafia tied to death of America" and "Zio-Saudis use petrodollar to wage war," which are as unhinged as their titles suggest), in which he accuses Starbucks of blocking PressTV's website but not, for example, pornographic websites.

The YouTube video, which PressTV's article does not link to, lays out Stathis's conspiratorial theory, which is that Starbucks is censoring PressTV's site as part of an effort by a hypothetical Jewish cabal to control U.S. opinion. Stathis has some unkind things to say about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and investment guru Peter Schiff (no, he does not connect those dots beyond "they're both Jewish"; yes, it's just as nonsensical in the video). And he takes a break from his rant to talk to a pornographic webcam recording he claims he's accessing from a Starbucks. The whole thing is strange and uncomfortable to watch, and not terribly work appropriate. I can't say I recommend it.

Here's the thing, though: Stathis is on to something. On Friday, I walked across the street to Starbucks. Sure enough, PressTV's website wouldn't load. In an effort to find another website that wouldn't load (and probably put myself on a few watch lists), here are some other sites I tried: Iran's other English-language state news agency Fars, the Syrian Arab News Agency, Russian propaganda machine Pravda, white supremacist web forum Stormfront, and PornHub, which is exactly what it sounds like. They were all accessible -- at the glacial speed of coffee shop Wi-Fi, but accessible. I walked two blocks to another Starbucks. Once again, PressTV gave me an error message, while Stathis's crazy YouTube video loaded without a hitch. Same thing at a third Starbucks. Back here at the FP office: PressTV's site loaded, no problem.

When reached for comment, Laura Mill, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told FP, "We do not filter our content or websites that can be accessed in our stores in the U.S. There're some global nuances, but in the U.S. there's no filtering." IT specialists at Starbucks told her the site might be blocked by the Internet service provider.

Starbucks's Wi-Fi is provided by AT&T, which did not reply to a request for comment by press time. But PressTV was easily accessible on the protected Wi-Fi network at the AT&T store across the street from one of the Starbucks locations I visited Friday. Starbucks's Wi-Fi also has AT&T terms and conditions that users agree to when logging in. And buried in the fine print, AT&T passes the buck back to Starbucks:

The owner or operator of the Location may have implemented URL filtering or other content filtering services which block access to certain websites or content while at the Location ('content filtering').

As it happens, AT&T's terms and conditions protect it from liability for just about any disruption in service you can imagine (and a few that you probably didn't think of):

AT&T will not be liable for any failure of performance, if such failure is due to any cause beyond AT&T's reasonable control, including acts of God, fire, explosion, vandalism, nuclear disaster, terrorism, cable cut, storm or other similar occurrence, any law, order or regulation by any government, civil, or military authority, national emergencies, insurrections, riots, wars, labor difficulties, supplier failures, shortages, breaches, or delays, or delays caused by you or your equipment.

Something does seem to be blocking access to PressTV at Starbucks, but whether that's a person or just a glitch -- and why PressTV and not, say, the Fars News Agency as well -- remains unclear. But if you think it's evidence of a grand conspiracy to deprive the American public of Iranian propaganda, maybe it's time to take off your tinfoil hat.


How Europe helped build the Syrian site Israel just bombed

Early on Sunday morning, the skies over Damascus lit up with explosions as Israeli jets launched airstrikes near the capital. The target was reportedly the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research in the suburb of Jamraya, which goes by its French initials CERS.

CERS, according to Western intelligence agencies, is in charge of research and development for Syria's chemical and biological weapons programs. It has long been on the radar of the Israelis: As far back as 2010, an Israeli general warned that the site "will be demolished" if it continued to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and it was already targeted by a suspected Israeli strike in January. While CERS is an ostensibly civilian agency, it works hand in glove with the Syrian military: In the 1990s, the U.S. Defense Department reported that the Assad regime had set up a production line to manufacture bomblets containing VX nerve agent at an underground site in the same location as CERS's Damascus facility.

How did CERS acquire the know-how to manufacture such weapons? The crucial period was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Assad regime researched and acquired sarin gas, which it now stands accused of using in small quantities on its own people. During this period, Syria did not rely on rogue states, or even entirely on its alliance with the Soviet Union, to acquire its chemical weapons stockpile -- it simply asked European companies for the technology.

Foreign assistance was of "critical importance in allowing Syria to develop its chemical warfare capability, and ...West European firms were instrumental in supplying the required precursor chemicals and equipment," testified then-CIA Director William Webster before Congress in 1989. "Without the provision of these key elements, Damascus would not have been able to produce chemical weapons."

In order to receive European help, Syria exploited gaping loopholes in the Western anti-proliferation regime. President Hafez al-Assad established CERS in 1971 as a civilian agency dedicated to research in unthreatening fields such as solar energy, sewage treatment, and telecommunications. In reality, by the 1980s CERS reported directly to Assad, and the agency director-general was promoted to the rank of cabinet minister. CERS's true aim was to scour Europe for dual-use technology that could bolster its chemical weapons program.

The Assad regime was massively successful. CERS received financial support to purchase equipment from the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, and it sent its engineers for training at the French government's official research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). Until the early 1990s, the French government was actively encouraging French high-tech companies to do business with CERS, according to a 1992 report by Middle East Defense News (Mednews).

European companies, rather than inquiring about how their sensitive technology would be used, looked to make a quick profit by providing CERS with whatever it desired. In the mid-1980s, the West German company Schott Glasswerke provided high-durability glass instruments for what the Syrians dubbed the "Borosilicate Glass Project" --- but which was, in reality, a project to manufacture sarin gas. According to Mednews, over a dozen major German companies also supplied CERS with sensitive hardware.

By 1992, Europe had wised up to the military research being conducted by CERS -- but the damage had already been done. The Assad regime had already acquired stockpiles of sarin gas and potentially VX nerve agent. These same weapons are now causing headaches for governments across the globe: Israel's recent strike allegedly targeted ballistic missiles bound for Hezbollah, and one reason Jerusalem acted so aggressively is no doubt because it fears Assad could enable the Lebanese militant group to launch chemical weapon-tipped missiles.

But even while Syria's chemical weapons program was advancing, some European officials knew that something was not quite right. "Every day I sign off on export licenses," Mednews quoted a senior French licensing official as saying, "and I wonder whether I have not just signed my resignation."