DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - American authorities seized a range of Iran’s state-linked news website domains they accused of spreading disinformation, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday, a move that appeared to be a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
The Justice Department said 33 of the seized websites were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, which was singled out by the U.S. government last October for what officials described as efforts to spread disinformation and sow discord among American voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The U.S. says three other seized websites were operated by the Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group, Kata'ib Hizballah, which more than a decade ago was designated a foreign terrorist organization. The group is separate from the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group whose news websites remained operational.
The website domains are owned by U.S. companies, but despite the sanctions, neither the IRTVU nor KH obtained the required licenses from the U.S. government before using the domain names, according to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department announcement came hours after the Iranian state-run news agency IRNA revealed the U.S. government seizures without providing further information.
An Iranian man reads on his mobile phone a statement declaring the website of Iran's Arabic-language channel Al-Alam "has been seized by the United Government," in the capital Tehran on June 23, 2021. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
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 hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi. On Monday, Raisi, known for his hostility to the West, staked out a hard-line position in his first news conference. He ruled out the possibilities of meeting with President Joe Biden or negotiating over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for regional militias — concerns the Biden administration wants to be addressed in future talks.
Relations between Iran and the U.S. have deteriorated for years following President Donald Trump's withdrawal from Tehran's nuclear deal and the return of devastating sanctions on the country. That decision has seen Iran, over time, gradually abandon every limit on uranium enrichment. The country is now enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.
Iran provides support to militant groups in the region, such as Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, as it seeks to wield its influence far afield and counter its foes.
On Tuesday, visiting the addresses of 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, produced a federal takedown notice. It said the websites were seized "as part of law enforcement action" by the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The U.S. government also took over the domain name of the news website Palestine Today, which reflects the viewpoints 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 state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s English-language service. Its Iran-based website, PressTV.ir, was not affected.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. has seized domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.
Last October, the Department of Justice announced the takedown of nearly 100 websites linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. The U.S. said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a "global disinformation campaign" to influence U.S. policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.
Yemen's Houthi rebel group announced that its Al-Masirah satellite news channel went offline Tuesday without prior notice. It said the channel would continue in its mission of "confronting the American and Israeli acts of piracy against our nation, by any means."
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 hard-liners 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."
Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.