US govt blocks Iranian news websites

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Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi

The US has taken down dozens of Iranian and Iran-linked news sites, which it accused of spreading disinformation.

Many sites were offline on Tuesday, with notices explaining they have been “seized” by the US – alongside seals of the FBI and Department of Commerce.

They include Iran’s state-owned Press TV and al-Masirah TV, run by Yemen’s Iran-aligned rebel Houthi movement.

It comes amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran over reinitialising a nuclear deal.

Deal of the day

The US Department of Justice said the US had seized 33 websites run by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and another three run by the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq, Reuters news agency reported.

The Justice Department said the domains used by IRTVU were owned by a US company and IRTVU had not obtained a license from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control prior to using them. Kataib Hezbollah – which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US – also did not obtain a license.

The websites were not accessible on Tuesday afternoon, with the statement on Al-Alam’s website reading: “The domain alalamtv.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.”

Notices also appeared on some of Iran’s Press TV websites, the Iranian government’s main English-language satellite television channel, and Al Alam, its Arabic-language equivalent. Lualua TV, an Arabic-language Bahraini independent channel that broadcasts from the UK, was also taken down.

Yemen’s Houthi movement confirmed that its domain at almasirah.net had been blocked. Iran supports the Houthis, who control much of western Yemen, but it denies providing them with weapons.

Most of the domain names seized were .com, .net and .tv addresses. The .com and .net addresses are generic domains and are not specific to a particular country. The .tv domain is owned by the Pacific nation of Tuvalu but is run by the US firm Verisign. The seizure of another country’s top-level domain – such as Iran’s .ir – could potentially be seen as a violation of sovereignty.

Several of the sites were back online within hours with new domain addresses.

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.”

The latest move comes days after hard-line anti-Western cleric Ebrahim Raisi was elected president of the Islamic Republic.

The US and Iran have long been foes, but relations have deteriorated since 2018, when then-US President Donald Trump abandoned a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers and reinstated crippling economic sanctions. Iran retaliated by gradually breaching the agreed limits on its nuclear activities.

On Sunday, a sixth round of talks aimed at reviving the deal were held in Vienna between envoys for Iran and the five remaining signatories – China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK. US representatives have been participating indirectly.

All of Iran’s news stations are government run, with no private television or radio stations. Satellite dishes are also illegal – although they are commonly seen. In the past, Iranian police have resorted to using cherry pickers to scour balconies for them, and crushing confiscated satellite dishes with tanks as a show of force.

In October, the US seized 92 websites it said were being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) to spread political disinformation.

The Iranian government has made no official comment in response to the move, but media outlets in the country have accused the US of censorship.

“Is this another example of US freedom of the press where if DC doesn’t like what u say, ur domain is seized? (sic),” tweeted American-born Press TV host Marzieh Hashemi.