WASHINGTON — Amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran, U.S. government officials took control of dozens of Iranian media websites on Tuesday afternoon.
Visitors to digital webpages including Iran’s Arabic- and English-language channels Al-Alam and Press TV, as well as the Yemeni site Al Masirah, which has been linked to Houthi rebels, were met with bulletins in English and Arabic that noted the internet domains had been “seized” by the FBI in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Commerce.
According to a Justice Department press release, the U.S. seized 33 websites operated by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is prohibited by the U.S. government from obtaining or using website or domain services hosted in the United States without a license. According to the Justice Department, the sites were part of a broader effort on the part of the Iranian government to spread disinformation and influence U.S. elections. The government also took over three domains hosted by Kata’ib Hizballah, an Iraqi paramilitary group, which the U.S. designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
Iranian media also reported that the websites, linked to the “resistance front” of regime-linked sites, were taken down on Tuesday.
Press TV, one of the targets of the crackdown, posted a tweet noting that a “similar” seizure message appeared “on the websites of a series of Iranian and regional television networks” in “what seems to be a coordinated action,” before continuing to tweet links to its latest stories, including one alleging to reveal CIA support behind the 2012 spy film “Argo,” posted on a still-functioning secondary domain.
The impact of the seizure appeared limited. Many internet users, depending on their browser, location or URL typed into the address bar, were able to navigate to the websites regardless. Press TV quickly came back online after moving to a hosting site in Denmark.
In the past, the Justice Department has seized a number of Iranian domain names linked to the Iranian military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which were “unlawfully used to further a global covert influence campaign,” according to a DOJ press release. Those sites “purported to be genuine news outlets but were actually controlled by the IRGC and targeted audiences in the United States,” the Justice Department noted in 2020.
However, the sites displaying the seizure notice, which was visually different from the 2020 notice, belong to what appear to be legitimate, albeit state-run, media sites.
The announcement came just days after Iran elected a new hard-line president, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and accused of serious human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, U.S. and European officials have been working behind the scenes to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which was designed to limit Iran’s enrichment of uranium. The pact, formerly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by President Donald Trump in 2018.
It’s unclear how the election of Raisi, as well as the recent Justice Department web seizures, will affect the prospects of resurrecting the deal.
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