Several of the sites were back online within hours with new domain addresses.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) said on Tuesday, June 22, it seized the domains of 36 websites for violating U.S. sanctions. Many of the websites were associated with either disinformation activities or violent organizations, said one national security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Today, pursuant to court orders, the United States seized 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and three websites operated by Kata’ib Hizballah also known as Kataib Hezbollah (KH), in violation of U.S. sanctions,” the department said in a statement.
KH is one of the main Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran and has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S.
Domains owned by U.S. company
Among the websites that were taken down were the state-owned Press TV, the Iranian government’s main English satellite television channel, and Al Alam, its Arabic-language equivalent. Both came back online using Iranian domain addresses Alalam.ir and Presstv.ir.
According to Iranian news media, websites for the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen and satellite and TV news channels dedicated to reports from the holy Shiite city of Karbala, Iraq have also been taken down.
The DOJ said the 33 domains used by IRTVU are owned by a U.S. company and that IRTVU did not obtain a license from the Department of the Treasury‘s Office of Foreign Assets Control before using the domain names. The domains operated by KH were also owned by a U.S. company that also did not obtain a license.
Notices appeared early Tuesday on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been taken down by the U.S. government as part of law enforcement action. Similar notices also appeared on the website of Lualua TV, an Arabic-language Bahraini independent news channel that broadcasts from the UK, and Yemen’s Masirah TV, run by Iran-aligned Houthi movement.
The notice on the website of the Arabic-language Masirah TV stated: “The domain almasirah.net has been seized by the United States Government in accordance with a seizure warrant … as part of a law enforcement action by the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Masirah TV quickly opened up a new website at www.almasirah.com.
U.S. takes down sites at critical moment in nuclear negotiations
The U.S. took down the sites just two days after envoys for Iran and six world powers – the U.S., the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany – adjourned high-stakes talks on reviving their tattered 2015 nuclear accord. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.
“We are now closer than ever to an agreement but the distance that exists between us and an agreement remains and bridging it is not an easy job,” said Iranian diplomat Abbas Araqchi.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump kept a campaign promise and unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA. Trump also reintroduced sanctions on Iran that had been previously lifted. (Related: BACK TO THE TABLE: Iran expects US return to Obama nuclear deal under Biden.)
Just a few days ago, Iran held a presidential vote on June 18 to install Ebrahim Raisi, an Iranian conservative and the country’s former chief judge, as its top elected official. The U.S. has accused Raisi of human rights abuses and has imposed sanctions to prevent any official dealings with him.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s outgoing president, was seen as a reformist open to deals with the U.S. and other Western powers. But Raisi is expected to take a “more nationalistic and hardline tone,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
In his first news conference on Monday, June 21, Raisi said his priorities would be to improve ties with regional neighbors and revive the 2015 nuclear deal. He also ruled out meeting with President Joe Biden.
Iranian news agencies condemn U.S. move
The Iranian state-run news agency IRNA called the takedowns “an illegal act” and “terroristic policy” against independent media. The semi-official Iranian news agency YJC said the U.S. move “demonstrates that calls for freedom of speech are lies.” (Related: United Nations now targeting free speech on a global scale, under the banner of fighting “hate speech.”)
The spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, Shahrokh Nazemi, said the U.S. was trying to muzzle free speech. “While rejecting this illegal and bullying action, which is an attempt at limiting the freedom of expression, the issue will be pursued through legal channels,” Nazemi said.
The Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), accused the American government of targeting websites that belonged to the so-called axis of resistance, which is how Tehran and its allies describe proxy militia groups in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria that receive training and funding from Iran.
It’s not the first time that the U.S. has seized the domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.
American prosecutors in October took down a network of web domains they said was used in a campaign by the IRGC to spread political disinformation around the world.
The DOJ said at the time that it had taken control of 92 domains used by the IRGC to pose as independent media outlets targeting audiences in the U.S., Europe, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
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