American authorities seized a range of Iran’s state-linked news website domains they accused of spreading disinformation, the US Justice Department confirmed Tuesday, a move that appeared to be a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
Some of the websites appeared to be back and operating by Wednesday morning.
The Justice Department said 33 of the seized websites were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which was singled out by the US government last October for what officials described as efforts to spread disinformation and sow discord among American voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Tehran warned that Washington’s seizure was “not constructive” for ongoing talks on bringing the United States back into the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran’s state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president’s office questioned the timing of the move as talks on bringing Washington back into the nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers are reportedly making headway.
“We are using all international and legal means to… condemn… this mistaken policy of the United States,” the director of the president’s office, Mahmoud Vaezi, told reporters.
The US said three other seized websites were operated by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), an Iraqi organization that was designated a foreign terrorist organization more than a decade ago. The group is separate from the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, whose news websites remained operational.
The website domains are owned by US companies, but neither the IRTVU nor KH obtained the required licenses from the US government before using the domain names, according to the Justice Department. It was unclear if they would have been granted even if requested.
The Justice Department announcement came hours after the Iranian state-run news agency IRNA revealed the US government seizures without providing further information.
The takedowns come as world powers scramble to resurrect Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal and just days after the election victory of Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi.
On Monday, Raisi, known for his hostility to the West, ruled out the possibilities of meeting with US President Joe Biden or negotiating over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for regional militias — concerns the Biden administration wants addressed in future talks.
Relations between Iran and the US have deteriorated for years following former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal and the return of devastating sanctions on the country. Iran is increasingly abandoning limits on uranium enrichment and is now enriching to 60%, its highest level ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.
Iran also provides support to militant groups, such as Lebanon’s terrorist Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as it seeks to wield its influence far afield and counter its foes.
On Tuesday, visitors to a handful of sites, including Iran state television’s English-language arm Press TV, Yemeni Houthi-run Al-Masirah satellite news channel, and Iranian state TV’s Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam, were greeted with a federal takedown notice.
It said the websites were seized “as part of law enforcement action” by the US Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Yemen’s Houthi rebel group announced that its Al-Masirah satellite news channel would continue in its mission of “confronting the American and Israeli acts of piracy against our nation, by any means.”
The US government also took over the domain name of the news website Palestine Today, which reflects the viewpoints of Gaza-based Islamic terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, redirecting the site to the same takedown notice.
Press TV, launched in June 2007, is the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s English-language service. Its Iran-based website, PressTV.ir, was not affected. On Wednesday morning the English-language website was operating and included a report of it having been seized the day before.
Most of the domains seized 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 administered by the US company Verisign. Seizing a domain on a major country-specific top-level domain such as Iran’s “.ir” would be apt to produce widespread international condemnation as a violation of sovereignty.
It’s not the first time that the US has seized the domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.
Last October, the US Department of Justice announced the takedown of nearly 100 websites linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. The US said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a “global disinformation campaign” to influence US policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.
Responsibility for providing name service for the domain name presstv.com was apparently switched to an Amazon name server on Tuesday at mid-afternoon European time, said internet infrastructure expert Ron Guilmette. Cybersecurity researchers at RiskIQ found a total of 24 seized sites sharing the same Amazon name server.
There are no private television or radio stations in Iran. Satellite dishes, while widespread, also are illegal. That leaves IRIB with a monopoly on domestic airwaves.
Marzieh Hashemi, a prominent Press TV anchor who, in 2019, was arrested as a material witness in an unspecified criminal case and has appeared before a grand jury in Washington, told The Associated Press that the channel was struggling to “figure out the reasons” for the seizure.
While airing in Iran, Press TV focuses predominantly on international affairs through the lens of how leaders in the Islamic Republic see the world. Fierce criticism of British and American foreign policy is common. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, IRIB has been in the hands of hardliners who back Iran’s government.
Press TV has previously run into trouble with Western authorities over its reporting. The Anti-Defamation League has criticized the channel as “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English.”