American authorities seized a range of Iran’s state-linked news website domains they accused of spreading disinformation, the US Justice Department said on Tuesday.
The move 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 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.
The US says three other seized websites were operated by Kata’ib Hizballah, which more than a decade ago was designated a foreign terrorist organisation.
The website domains are owned by US companies, but despite the sanctions, neither the IRTVU nor KH obtained the required licenses from the US 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 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 hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi.
On Monday, Mr 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 programme 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 President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal and the return of devastating sanctions on the country.
That decision has led Iran to 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 US Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The US 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 US company Verisign.
Seizing a domain on a major country-specific top-level domain such as Iran’s “.ir” would likely spark widespread international condemnation as a violation of sovereignty.
It is not the first time the US 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 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.
Yemen’s Houthi rebel group announced its Al-Masirah satellite news channel went offline on Tuesday without 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”.