On Tuesday, the US government said it seized 33 websites run by a branch of the Iranian government that spread disinformation in the US before the 2020 presidential election. The US also seized three websites that it said were operated by an Iraqi terrorist organization.
Yesterday’s Department of Justice announcement said the 33 Iranian sites were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which is owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF). The DOJ said the IRTVU “targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.”
“Visitors to leading Iranian media sites like Press TV and Al-Alam, the country’s main English- and Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen’s Huthis, were met with single-page statements declaring the website ‘has been seized by the United States government’ accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department,” the AFP wrote. The US 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,” The Washington Post reported.
The US obtained seizure warrants and was able to shut down the sites because the domains were provided by a US company.
“Brazen attempts to sow discord” among voters
In October 2020, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned IRTVU, IRGC-QF, and three other Iranian entities “for attempting to influence elections in the United States.” The sanction announcement described IRTVU as “a propaganda arm of the IRGC-QF.”
“The Iranian regime has targeted the United States’ electoral process with brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters,” the October 2020 announcement said. “Components of the Government of Iran, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, have targeted the United States in order to subvert US democratic processes.”
Iranian disinformation campaigns “have targeted a global audience through a variety of covert media organizations” and “focus on sowing discord among readers via social media platforms and messaging applications, and frequently involve mischaracterizing information,” the Treasury Department said.
“IRGC-QF outlets amplified false narratives in English and posted disparaging propaganda articles and other US-oriented content with the intent to sow discord among US audiences,” the sanction announcement also said.
The Anti-Defamation League said in 2015 that “Press TV is the Iranian government’s primary English-language propaganda tool, promoting a wide range of pernicious antisemitic conspiracy theories as ‘news’ to a worldwide audience. Operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Press TV serves as a mouthpiece for American anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, and Holocaust deniers, who help amplify the Iranian regime’s hateful messages.”
Press TV “push[ed] antisemitic conspiracies about the coronavirus to distract from the mullah regime’s mishandling of the pandemic,” for example by claiming that “Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran,” the Jerusalem Post wrote in March 2020.
Websites used domains owned by US company
The October sanctions classified IRTVU as a Specially Designated National (SDN), meaning it is “prohibited from obtaining services, including website and domain services, in the United States without an OFAC license,” the DOJ said yesterday.
“The 33 [seized] domains are owned by a United States company. IRTVU did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to utilizing the domain names,” the DOJ said. The DOJ did not identify the US company.
Because of the sanctions, all of the designated entities’ “property and interests” that are “subject to US jurisdiction are blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them,” the Treasury Department said in October.
The other three websites seized yesterday were operated by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), which is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US government. As with IRTVU, KH’s domains “were owned by a United States company,” and “KH did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to utilizing the domain names,” the DOJ said.
KH, which is backed by Iran, launched attacks against US and coalition forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2011. “KH returned its focus to opposing US presence in Iraq” in late 2018 when it “allegedly conducted a rocket attack that took place near the US Consulate in Basra, which was evacuated and indefinitely closed,” according to Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. After that attack and another rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad that was carried out by a related group, the US “issued a statement that it would consider attacks carried out by Iranian-backed militias as attacks perpetrated by Iran.”
Iran condemns website seizures
The Iranian government condemned the website seizures, and President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff said the US action is “not constructive when talks for a deal on the nuclear issue are underway,” according to AFP. IRIB “accused the US of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia ‘to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region,'” the AFP wrote.
The seizures did not erase the Iranian organizations’ presence on the Internet. “TV stations such as Press TV and Al-Alam switched to .ir domains and their websites remained accessible. They are also still present on social media, mainly Twitter, and their broadcasts have continued uninterrupted,” the AFP wrote. Additionally, “Al-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.”