U.S. authorities have seized three dozen Iranian state-linked news website domains -- many associated with disinformation or with a U.S.-designated terrorist organization -- for violating U.S. sanctions.
The United States seized 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and three websites operated by the Iran-backed Kataib Hizballah militia, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement on June 22.
The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last year designated IRTVU for being owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, the Justice Department said.
The designation was in response to the Iranian regime targeting the U.S. electoral process 'with brazen attempts to sow discord' among voters by spreading disinformation online.
OFAC's announcement in October 2020 said components of the government of Iran, including IRTVU, disguise themselves as news organizations or media outlets and target the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.
The Justice Department said the 33 domains targeted by the seizure on June 22 are owned by a U.S. company and IRTVU did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to using the domain names, a violation of U.S. sanctions.
Kataib Hizballah, an Iran-aligned Iraqi militia group, has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. When OFAC added Kataib Hizballah to its sanctions list in July 2009, it said the IRGC provides lethal support to it and other Iraqi Shi'a militia groups that target and kill coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.
It also violated U.S. sanctions by failing to obtain licenses from OFAC for its websites.
The Iranian state-linked websites that abruptly went offline include state television's English-language Press TV, the Yemeni Huthi rebels' Al-Masirah satellite news channel, and Iranian state television's Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam.
The notices that appeared at the websites said they were seized "as part of law enforcement action" by the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement, which is part of the U.S. Commerce Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Several of the sites were back online within hours using new domain addresses, and the semiofficial Iranian news agency YJC said the U.S. move 'demonstrates that calls for freedom of speech are lies.'
It is not the first time that the U.S. has seized domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation around the world.
Last October, U.S. prosecutors seized a network of web domains they said were used in a campaign by the IRGC.
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 recent takedowns come as world powers negotiate the restoration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and after the election victory Ebrahim Raisi. The hard-line conservative, who won nearly 62 percent of the vote in the June 18 election, will take office in early August.
Raisi said on June 21 that he backs discussions to revive the deal regulating its nuclear sector but draws the line at holding direct talks with U.S. President Joe Biden.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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