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Home :: ICANN

06 Jul 2014

Why Iran is not going to lose the .IR domain ICANN

Press reports say:

A United States court on Tuesday effectively awarded a group of American and Israeli victims of Iranian terror the rights to the .ir domain, the suffix used to identify Iranian websites, along with all of Iran's IP addresses.

While the court and the lawsuit are real, it is extremely unlikely that .IR is going anywhere.

A lawsuit going back to 2002 awarded a group of individuals a huge judgment against the government of Iran due to their support of terrorist activities in the 1990s. Collecting has been hard, since Iran owns nothing in the US other than diplomatic missions which are immune, so the lawyers have gotten creative. Last year they successfully got control of an office building in New York originally built by the Shah of Iran, by showing that some minority owners had impermissible links to the Iranian government.

In this round, they assert that ICANN licenses the .IR domain to the Iranian government, and if you believe their press release (all the news coverage is just rewrites of the release) the court says they have to hand over .IR and the licensing revenue.

The only recent paperwork I can find in this case is a subpoena the lawyers sent to ICANN two weeks ago demanding that ICANN produce copies of correspondence with the Iranian government, and a writ asking what assets of or income from the Iranian government they have. While the court presumably approved sending the subpoena and the writ (there's nothing in the PACER record about them), that's a long way from forcing anyone to turn over anything to anyone. I expect that ICANN will produce all the documents, which are probably already on their web site, and reply that they have no Iranian assets and receive no Iranian income. Then what?

[Root zone management] A problem here is that the lawyers completely misunderstand ICANN's relationship to country code domains (ccTLDs). A few ccTLDS have agreements to make voluntary contributions to ICANN, but Iran doesn't, so ICANN gets no money from them. ICANN's role in ccTLD management is easy to tell from this diagram, which comes from their IANA Functions contract with the US Department of Commerce. In the figure the IANA Functions Operator is ICANN, the Administrator is the Department of Commerce, and the Root Zone Maintainer is Verisign. The Root Server Operators are a dozen separate organizations, three of which are outside the US and not subject to US law. So ICANN's only role is clerical.

They get the change requests from the TLD Operator, which in Iran's case is the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Tehran. Once they have processed the change request, which means verifying that it really came from the proper party, and that it isn't technically defective (sometimes a problem with small less sophisticated countries), they pass it on to DoC for approval. As far as I can tell, DoC has always approved change requests, but reserves the right not to do so. DoC sends it along to Verisign who updates the root zone and distributes the zone file to the root server operators.

From this it should be evident that ICANN has nothing to give the lawyers. They have the addresses of the .IR servers, but those are public. I suppose it is just barely possible that the court would force ICANN to send DoC a change request to change the .IR servers to something controlled by the lawyers, but for several reasons, it is very unlikely that DoC would approve it.

One is historical. Despite the existence of long standing sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, DoC has never interfered with the operation of the .IR, .CU, and .KP domains. In 2011, North Korea moved .KP from one entity to another within North Korea, and the change went through without a murmur. Last September they delegated .ایران (Iran's name in Arabic script) to the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences, again, without any objection.

Another is that it would create an international firestorm. ICANN and DoC are in the middle of an elaborate dance to move ICANN oversight from the US government to some yet to be invented thing that will be international enough to satisfy people who want ICANN out from under the thumb of the U.S., yet conservative and reliable enough to provide the adult supervision that ICANN desperately needs. A sudden grab of a ccTLD would make this process, shall we say, somewhat more complicated.

Another is that it would create a domestic financial mess. Iran is far from the only country with unsatisfied US judgments. The obvious next target would be Argentina, which is engaged in a long and painful battle with Elliott Associates. a New York hedge fund that owns defaulted Argentine bonds, and a few years ago briefly grabbed an Argentine naval training ship in Ghana. If they thought they had any chance of getting .AR, they'd be at the courthouse in a second.

And finally, if it got to the root server operators, it would provoke an unprecedented crisis, since the US operators would presumably have to do what the court said, while the non-US operators would be very unwilling to get involved in a domestic US political argument. The root might split, or they might just stop accepting root zone updates at all as the least bad of some dreadful options.

So I don't know how many more steps this will go, but fundamentally, it's not going anywhere.

By the way, this is not the first time that lawyers who don't understand what ICANN does have tried to get it to cancel the .IR TLD. In 2012, a group called United Against Nuclear Iran sent ICANN a letter, telling them that .IR violated Iranian sanctions. They claimed that .IR is delegated through RIPE. which it's not, and that ICANN could reclaim Iranian IP addresses from RIPE and its LIRs, which it couldn't if it wanted to.

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