The US government seized dozens of Iran-linked websites on Tuesday, accusing site operators of spreading disinformation.
The Department of Justice seized 36 sites in total. Though US companies own the domains, 33 were operated by the state-linked Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), a government official said.
Three other seized websites were operated by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), the Iran-backed militia group in Iraq. The group was designated a foreign terrorist organization more than ten years ago, the Department of Justice noted.
Disinformation Campaigns and Malign Influence
Government officials have long pointed the finger at the Iranian state for trying to mislead US voters. The IRTVU and KH had been accused of spreading disinformation ahead of the 2020 US elections and were hit with sanctions in October.
“Components of the government of Iran, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States to subvert U.S. democratic processes,” the Department of Justice said.
As the website domains were owned by US-based companies, Iranian site operators had to obtain necessary licenses to those domains. The Justice Department said that IRTVU and KH had neglected to get those licenses.
Iran’s state-run Press TV was one of the sites seized. On Tuesday, instead of the home page, visitors saw a message reading: “This website has been seized,” in English and Persian.
“In what seems to be a coordinated action, similar messages appear on the websites of Iranian and regional television networks that claim the domains of the websites have been ‘seized by the United States Government,'” Press TV wrote in a tweet Tuesday. They redirected users to their .ir domain.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, called the move a “systematic attempt by the United States to undermine freedom of expression on a global level and to silence independent voices in media.”
Tensions Mount Between Washington and Tehran
The seizure of the websites comes at a turbulent time between the two nations. Tensions have been mounting since former president Donald Trump withdrew from a Tehran nuclear deal in 2018, reimposing heavy economic sanctions on Iran instead.
Following the assassination of Iranian military officer Qasem Soleimani in 2020 – a targeted American drone strike – Iran declared that it would no longer abide by the international nuclear deal of 2015.
The Biden administration is currently in renegotiations and wants a new deal regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. That agreement, the administration hopes, will lead to Iran’s reduced military presence in the Middle East.
However, following last week’s election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, that kind of deal might be hard to come by. In his first press conference on Monday, president-elect Raisi said he would continue to support Shiite militia groups, like KH, and refused to pull back Iran’s missile program.
“Regional and missile issues are not negotiable,” Raisi said at the press conference.
Cyberattack on Nuclear Facility in Iran
In April, Iran announced a blackout at their uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Though state media initially reported the issue as an electrical glitch, it turned out that a cyberattack was the likely cause. Iranian authorities later looked to Israel as the responsible party.
Iranian media first reported that an issue with the electrical grid led to the system’s failure. Media outlets said there were no injuries and no contamination from the incident occurred.
Israeli media quickly contradicted Iran’s account of an accident, claiming Israel’s Mossad was responsible for a cyberattack. Israel’s media also reported that the damage was far greater than what Iranian officials had said. The attack had shut down much of Natanz’s nuclear facility, setting back their nuclear program by several months.