U.S. authorities seized a range of areas from Iranian state-linked news websites that they accused of spreading “disinformation,” the Justice Department said in a press release on Tuesday, to an extent which appeared to be a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
Three dozen websites were taken down, according to the press release, the majority linked to Iranian disinformation efforts.
Iranian news agency IRNA announced the US government seizures without providing further information.
At the same time, world powers are scrambling to resuscitate Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, just days after the election victory of Iranian justice chief Ebrahim Raisi. On Monday, Raisi, known for his hostility to the West, took a tough stance at his first press conference. He ruled out meeting with President Biden or negotiating over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for regional militias – concerns the Biden administration wants to see addressed in future talks.
Relations between Iran and the United States have deteriorated in the years since President Trump’s withdrawal from the Tehran nuclear deal and the return of devastating sanctions against the country. This move saw Iran, over time, gradually abandon all uranium enrichment limits. The country is now enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever, although it is still below military grade levels.
Iran is supporting militant groups in the region, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as it seeks to exert its influence in the distance and counter its enemies.
On Tuesday, visiting the web addresses of a handful of sites, including Press TV, Iran’s English-language state television channel, the Yemeni Houthi-run satellite news channel Al-Masirah, and the Arabic-language channel Iranian state television, Al-Alam, referred to a federal withdrawal notice. He said the websites were seized “in connection with law enforcement action” by the US Bureau of Industry and Security, the Office of Export Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. .
The US government also took over the domain name of the Palestine Today news site, which reflects the views of Gaza-based Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, redirecting the site to the same takedown notice.
Press TV, launched in June 2007, is the English-language broadcasting service of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its Iran-based website, PressTV.ir, was not affected.
Most of the domains entered appeared to be “.net”, “.com” and “.tv” domains. The first two are generic top-level domains as opposed to country-specific domains, while “.tv” is owned by the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu but is administered by the US company Verisign. Seizing a domain on a top-level domain specific to a major country such as the Iranian “.ir” would be likely to provoke widespread international condemnation as a violation of sovereignty.
This is not the first time the United States has seized the domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.
In October, the Justice Department announced the removal of nearly 100 websites linked to powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The United States said the sites, operating under the guise of actual news organizations, were waging a “global campaign of disinformation” to influence US policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.
Yemen’s Houthi rebel group said its Al-Masirah satellite news channel was disconnected Tuesday without notice. He said the channel would continue with its mission of “dealing with American and Israeli acts of piracy against our nation, by all means”.
Responsibility for providing a name service for the presstv.com domain name apparently shifted to an Amazon name server mid-afternoon European time on Tuesday, Internet infrastructure expert Ron Guilmette said. RiskIQ cybersecurity researchers found a total of 24 seized sites sharing the same Amazon nameserver.
There are no private television or radio stations in Iran. Satellite dishes, although widespread, are also illegal. This leaves the IRIB with the monopoly of national airwaves.
Marzieh Hashemi, a prominent Press TV presenter who in 2019 was arrested as an important witness in an unspecified criminal case and appeared before a grand jury in Washington, told The Associated Press that the channel had to hard to “understand the reasons” for the seizure.
During its broadcast in Iran, Press TV mainly focuses on international affairs through the prism of how the leaders of the Islamic Republic view the world. Fierce criticism of British and American foreign policy is common. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the IRIB has been in the hands of hard-line supporters who support the Iranian government.
Press TV has had problems with Western authorities in the past because of its reporting. The Anti-Defamation League criticized the channel as “one of the world’s leading distributors of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English”.