U.S. seizes Iran-linked websites, alleging disinformation

TEHERAN – The US Department of Justice seized 36 Iran-related news website domains on Tuesday, accusing them of spreading disinformation amid ongoing tension between Tehran and Washington.

The Justice Department said 33 of the seized websites owned by a U.S. company were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which was one of the components of the Iranian government targeting the United States with disinformation campaigns Operations with Malicious Influence.

Three other seized sites were operated by one of the key Iraqi militia allied with Iran, Kata’ib Hizballah, which was classified by the US as a foreign terrorist organization more than a decade ago statement added.

According to the statement, in October the IRTVU was named a Specially Designated National (SDN) because it was owned or controlled by the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The department said SDNs in the United States are banned from obtaining services, including website and domain services, without a license. IRTVU did not receive a license before using the domain names, it said.

The department said the domains operated by Kata’ib Hizballah were also owned by a US company, and the organization had not obtained a license prior to using the domain names.

The state Iranian news agency IRNA called the seizures “An illegal act” and “terrorist policy” against independent media, while the Iranian President’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi told reporters on Wednesday that he condemned the seizures.

Notices of the seizures in English and Arabic appeared on a number of Iran-related websites on Tuesday. The official language of Iran is Persian.

Sites seized included Press TV, the Iranian government’s main English-language television station, and Al-Alam, its Arabic-language equivalent.

Both had a banner on their homepages on Wednesday morning saying that they had been confiscated by the US government. But they were back online with the Iranian domain addresses Alalam.ir and Presstv.ir.

Similar notices also appeared on the website of Lualua TV, an Arabic-language Bahraini news channel broadcasting from the UK, and Yemen television Masirah TV, operated by the Iranian-allied Houthi movement.

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It is not the first time the US has seized domain names from websites it accuses of spreading disinformation.

Last October, the Justice Department announced the removal of almost 100 websites used by the Revolutionary Guards. The websites, operating under the guise of real news agencies, were said to be conducting a “global disinformation campaign” to influence US politics and spread Iranian propaganda around the world.

Tuesday’s seizures come just days after hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was elected Iran’s new president and world powers are trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Relations between Iran and the US have deteriorated for years following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the return of devastating sanctions.

In his first press conference on Monday, the newly elected Raisi ruled out a meeting with President Joe Biden or any restrictions on Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

Yuliya Talmazan reported from London, Ali Arouzi from Tehran.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.

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