An Iranian woman shows on her mobile phone a statement declaring the website of Iran's English-language television station Press TV
An Iranian woman shows on her mobile phone a statement declaring the website of Iran's English-language television station Press TV "has been seized by the United Government", in the capital Tehran on June 23, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Washington/Tehran: The US has seized three dozen Iranian websites, according to the Justice Department, in a move likely to inflame tensions ahead of nuclear talks in Vienna expected to resume next month.

A message appeared on several Iranian state-run news websites claiming they had been “Seized by the United States Government” in a joint law enforcement action between the FBI and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security.

The Justice Department said in a statement on Tuesday night that the seizures were in “response to the Iranian regime targeting 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 web domains affected include the English-language news network Press TV and Arabic-language channels Al Alam News and Al Kawthar TV.

A statement by the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network said the move appeared to be part of a larger-scale crackdown by the US on news websites linked to what Iran calls the “Axis of Resistance,” which includes Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, some Iraqi militias and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The Justice Department said in the statement that the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control had determined that Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, which operated 33 of the websites, was controlled by country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and therefore subject to sanctions. Three other sites are run by the Iraqi militant group Kait’ib Hezbollah, which the department said received support from the Guard Corps and had killed “coalition and Iraqi security forces.”

'Genuine news outlets'

The US in October seized 92 domain names it said were used by the Guard Corps to engage in global disinformation efforts. Four of those sites “purported to be genuine news outlets,” the Justice Department said in a statement at the time.

That earlier effort began with intelligence provided by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, the Justice Department said at the time, and ultimately represented a collaborative effort between the search engine, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

Tuesday’s seizure is likely to add new tension to the next round of negotiations, expected to take place in Vienna in the coming weeks, on reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers that former President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

The US and Iranian officials have reported progress in the first six rounds of those talks, which are taking place through intermediaries including Russia and France. But mistrust remains high, and the talks were further roiled by hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in Iran’s presidential elections last week.

Raisi has demanded an end to US sanctions and says the country won’t give up its ballistic-missile capabilities, something the US says should be up for discussion later on should the two countries go back into compliance with the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.