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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama imposed U.S. sanctions on Monday on those who help Syria and Iran track dissidents through cell phones and computers, serving notice on technology providers that they could be held responsible for those governments' human rights abuses.
Obama's announcement underscored how democracy activists have used social media tools in protest movements across the Middle East, but also the extent to which authoritarian governments have used cutting-edge technologies to crack down on dissent.
"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them," Obama said in a somber speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Obama rolled out new asset freezes and visa restrictions against Syrian and Iranian security agencies, telecommunications companies and individuals accused of helping security forces conduct surveillance to target the opposition for attack.
With Obama under election-year pressure to get tougher with Iran and Syria, the new sanctions targeted those based inside those countries and did not cite any foreign entities that provide technology to the two governments.
But the administration did not appear to rule out the possibility of broadening the measures later on.
Reuters reported in March that China's ZTE Corp. sold Iran's largest telecoms provider, Telecommunication Co. of Iran (TCI), a powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile and Internet communications as part of a contract signed in December 2010. ZTE said it would curtail its business in Iran.
Obama's announcement also raised questions about whether the United States might impose penalties on other countries like China that maintain tight controls on access to the Internet.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the focus for now was on Iran and Syria, which he branded the most obvious "bad actors." But he acknowledged "these are not the only regimes that oppress their people or use technology to do it."
Obama's executive order freezes U.S. assets linked to those aiding satellite, computer and phone network monitoring in Syria and Iran, where he said authorities were "using technologies to monitor and track and target citizens for violence."
It cites the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, the Syrian cell phone company Syriatel, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's Law Enforcement Forces and the Iranian Internet provider Datak Telecom, as well as a number of individuals.
Only Datak was not already subject to U.S. sanctions. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Datak collaborated with the Iranian government to monitor and track Internet users, and provided information on individuals who tried to circumvent the government's blocks on Internet content.
Seeking re-election on November 6, Obama is facing Republican criticism that he is not doing enough to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using military force to try to crush an uprising in fighting that has killed more than 9,000 people over the past 13 months. Obama is also under pressure to take a tougher line with Iran over its nuclear program.
"We will keep increasing the pressure for the diplomatic effort to further isolate Assad and his regime," Obama told an audience of about 250 people, including Holocaust survivors, government officials and diplomats.
But Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, in pointed remarks introducing the president, warned it may be "almost too late" to stop Iran and Syria's abuses.
Obama stressed that Washington was committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, which tops the concerns of U.S. Jewish voters. He has pressed Israel to hold off on attacking Iran's nuclear sites to give sanctions and diplomacy more time.
Holocaust survivor and author Wiesel cited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's past comments casting doubt on the World War Two mass killings of Jews as a reason to take the nuclear threat seriously.
"In this place we may ask, "Have we learned anything?" Wiesel said in the museum that details the rise of Nazi Germany and depicts scenes from concentration camps.
"How is it Assad is still in power? How is it that the Holocaust's Number One denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a president?" he said. "We must know that when evil has power it is almost too late. Preventive measures are important. We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe."
Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican nominee for the White House race, has criticized Obama's approach to Tehran as too conciliatory and said he would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon if he were elected president.
Obama has emphasized the potential for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian and Syrian crises while trying to ratchet up pressure on Tehran and Damascus through tightened sanctions.
In a video message to Iranians last month to mark the Persian New Year, Obama accused Iran of imposing an "electronic curtain" on its citizens and promised new U.S. steps aimed at helping ease the Iranian people's access to the Internet and social media.
George Lopez, a University of Notre Dame peace studies professor, said the new measures were a step toward disrupting the Iranian and Syrian governments' ability to plan and wage attacks that could be replicated elsewhere.
"Because mass atrocities are organized crimes, crippling the means to organize and sustain them — money, communications networks, and other resources — can disrupt their execution," he said.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull and Samson Reiny in Washington and Steve Stecklow in Acton, Massachusetts.; Writing by Laura MacInnis and Matt Spetalnick. Editing by Christopher Wilson