The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday seized 33 websites it said were linked to Iranian disinformation efforts.
The sites were taken down using rules that sanction Iran: In this case, sanctioned entities can’t obtain services in the U.S. – including website and domain name services – without special permission, which hadn’t been requested.
The 33 domain names were owned by a U.S. company, which the DOJ didn’t name in a statement.
The sites were ‘disguised as news organizations or media outlets,’ the DOJ said, and ‘targeted the United States to with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.’
The take-downs mark a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries after the election of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Among the websites targeted was that of Iran’s state broadcaster, Press TV. There are no private television or radio stations in Iran – and satellite dishes are also illegal, so the U.S.’s move was seen as a sharp slap-down.
Meanwhile, 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.
Domains tied to Iran-backed groups in Iraq and to Hezbollah, the Lebanese military-political faction, were also frozen.
The takedowns come as world powers scramble to resurrect Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal and just days after Raisi’s election victory.
On Monday, Raisi, known for his hostility to the West, staked out a hardline 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 expressed support for regional militias – concerns the Biden administration wants addressed in future talks.
Federal takedown notices also appeared on Iran state television and other news websites linked to the Iranian government
Relations between Iran and the U.S. have been poor for years, but following then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal and return of devastating sanctions on the country, they have worsened.
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.
Iranian state-run news agency IRNA announced the U.S. government seizures without providing further information, the Associated Press reported.
The move appeared to be a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries after the election of new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi
Notices appeared earlier on Tuesday on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been seized by the U.S. government as part of law enforcement action, Reuters reported.
Iranian news agencies said that the U.S. government had seized several Iranian media websites and sites belonging to groups affiliated with Iran such as Yemen’s Houthi movement. Some sites later started to display as normal.
The website of the Arabic-language satellite news channel Masirah TV, which is run by Yemeni Houthis, read: ‘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.’
The site quickly opened up a new, working website. That Al-Misrah website address is now filled with news articles about groups condemning the seizures by the U.S. government.
Yemen’s Houthi rebel group announced that its Al-Masirah channel would continue its mission of ‘confronting the American and Israeli acts of piracy against our nation, by any means.’
Iran’s Arabic language Alalam TV said on its Telegram channel: ‘U.S. authorities shut down Al-Alam TV’s website.’
Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi delivers speech at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran on June 22
Most of the domains seized appeared to be ‘.net’ and ‘.com’ domains, which are generic top-level domains as opposed to country-specific domains. Seizing a country-specific domain such as Iran’s ‘.ir’ would be apt to produce widespread international condemnation as a violation of sovereignty.
Press TV, launched in June 2007, is the English-language service of the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Its Iran-based website, PressTV.ir, was not affected but PressTV.com.au – an Australia-registered site – was among those apparently seized. It redirected to PressTV.com, which bore the takedown notice.
Responsibility for providing name service for the domain name presstv.com was apparently switched to Amazon name servers on Tuesday at mid-afternoon European time, said internet infrastructure expert Ron Guilmette. That suggests the domain was indeed wrested from its previous owner.
‘In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message appears on the websites of Iranian and regional television networks that claims the domains of the websites have been ‘seized by the United States Government’,’ Press TV said on Twitter.
The semi-official Iranian news agency YJC agency said on Tuesday the U.S. move ‘demonstrates that calls for freedom of speech are lies’.
Supporters of Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi cheer at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, on June 22
Marzieh Hashemi, a prominent Press TV anchorwoman who, in 2019, was arrested as 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.’
The seizures were also not the first time that the U.S. has seized domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.
Last October, the Justice Department announced the takedown of nearly a hundred websites linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard which officials said were used to spread political disinformation around the world.
The U.S. Justice Department said then that it had taken control of 92 domains used by the IRGC to pose as independent media outlets targeting audiences in the United States, Europe, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
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.
The Department of Justice, seen here, has not officially announced the seizures of the sites
The Iranian takedowns show the United States’ resolve in combatting disinformation and cyber attacks – particularly in the wake of hacking attacks linked to Russia.
In a press conference following Biden’s meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva last week, Biden said attacks on U.S. infrastructure is ‘off-limits to attack, period,’ Forbes reported.
Biden said he gave Russia a list of unacceptable targets for cyberattacks, according to the outlet. He also said Putin and him agreed to assign experts in both countries to ‘work on specific understandings about what’s off-limits.’
Biden told reporters earlier in June that he was ‘looking closely’ at retaliating against Russia for the attack on meat processor JBS.
‘We have significant cyber capability, and [Putin] knows it. If, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond … in a cyber way,’ Biden said.