PARIS — Satellite fleet operator SES’s experience with an Iranian satellite television network in Europe illustrates the complexities of applying the U.S.-led embargo on commercial transactions with the Iranian regime and those deemed to be serving it.

Under Europe’s Television Without Borders regulations, SES is obliged to provide, without discrimination, access to its satellites to all those that have a valid broadcast license from one of the 27 nations of the European Union.

Long before Iran became an issue, Luxembourg-based SES became aware of how slippery these regulations can be given the diverse interests of Europe’s individual nations.

Early in the company’s life — the company’s first satellite was launched in 1988 — it faced resistance from several European nations fighting to prevent private-sector television broadcasters from encroaching on the protected national markets of state-owned networks.

This was the case in the Netherlands, which denied a license for private broadcasters that had leased capacity on an SES Astra satellite. Without a license in the Netherlands, they could not operate there. The solution: Move their headquarters to Luxembourg, whose government was promoting the fledgling satellite operator and its growing list of customers.

SES spokesman Yves Feltes said Sept. 5 that the Dutch group beamed Dutch-language television into the Netherlands, just as it did before. But now, protected by its Luxembourg license, it could do so without fear of being shut down by Dutch authorities.

Fast forward to 2012: The Iranian television network, Press TV, operating in Britain, came under pressure for some of its programming in particular, the broadcaster said, and in general for its being Iranian at a time when the United States and its allies are trying to starve the Iranian regime of hard currency and propaganda platforms. The goal of the sanctions is to put sufficient pressure on Iranian leaders that they stop threatening Israel and negotiate an end to, or a substantial change in, Iran’s nuclear program.

In January 2012, the British telecommunications regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), ruled that Press TV, which had been operating in Britain for several years, no longer “had general control over which programmes and other services” were broadcast to the British audience. Ofcom said Press TV had in effect surrendered programming control to a nonlicensed third party, presumably the Iranian government.

Ofcom revoked Press TV’s license, and SES began the process of removing Press TV from the Astra satellite lineup.

But Press TV appeared soon after in southern Germany, where it furnished to SES a valid license from Germany’s BLM broadcast regulator, based in Munich. That license forced SES to continue to beam Press TV programming in Europe.

But in April, BLM informed SES that Press TV no longer had a license and should be removed from the Astra satellite.

Press TV appealed this decision to a Bavarian administrative court, which in short order reversed the BLM decision, thus reinstating the Press TV license.

As is the case with most satellite broadcasters, who operate over wide swaths of territory comprising many nations, SES is a conservatively run organization that steers well away from political controversy. Feltes said European law is clear that it is European governments, and not commercial satellite operators, that decide who should have access to the airwaves, and that a license from a European government cannot be challenged by the operator.

In July, an Israel legal group, Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center of Tel Aviv, opened an aggressive campaign against mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London, saying Inmarsat communications were aiding the shipment of Iranian oil on tankers flying under the Iranian flag or flags of convenience, in violation of the embargo.

Inmarsat protested that the services being provided were earlier-generation communications kits, and maritime safety links, that did not give Inmarsat insight into who was using them. No state-of-the-art or broadband communications links were provided to Iranian ships, Inmarsat said.

Inmarsat further said that as a former international treaty organization, it is bound by its convention to provide, without discrimination, Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) services to vessels worldwide. In the absence of a United Nations resolution to the contrary, this mandate includes Iranian vessels.

Shurat HaDin said that it was reviewing fixed satellite services operators such as SES and Paris-based Eutelsat to determine whether to mount a campaign against their satellites’ carriage of Iranian programming.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.