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U.S. seizes over 30 websites linked to Iranian disinformation

Iranian president's chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi told reporters Wednesday he condemned the seizures.
Image: Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during his first press conference in the Islamic republic's capital Tehran
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during his first press conference in the Islamic republic's capital Tehran, on Monday. Atta Kenare / AFP - Getty Images

TEHRAN — The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday seized 36 Iranian-linked news website domains, accusing them of spreading disinformation, amid continued tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The Justice Department said 33 of the seized websites, owned by a U.S.-based company, were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which it said was among components of the Iranian government targeting the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.

Three other seized websites were operated by one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups, Kata’ib Hizballah, which more than a decade ago was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S, the department's statement added.

According to the statement, IRTVU was designated as a so-called "Specially Designated National" (SDN) for being owned or controlled by Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard in October. The department said SDNs are prohibited from obtaining services, including website and domain services, in the United States without a license. IRTVU did not obtain a license prior to utilizing the domain names, it said.

The department said the domains operated by Kata’ib Hizballah were also owned by a United States company, and the organization also did not obtain a license prior to utilizing the domain names.

The Iranian state-run news agency IRNA called the seizures “an illegal act” and “terroristic policy” against independent media, while Iranian president's chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi told reporters Wednesday he condemned the seizures.

On Tuesday, notices of the seizures started popping up in English and Arabic on a number of Iran-affiliated websites. The official language of Iran is Persian.

The sites seized included Press TV, the Iranian government's main English-language television channel, and Al-Alam, its Arabic-language equivalent.

Both still had a banner up on their homepages Wednesday morning, saying they were seized by the U.S. government. But they were back online using Iranian domain addresses Alalam.ir and Presstv.ir.

Similar notices also appeared on the website of Lualua TV, an Arabic-language Bahraini news channel that broadcasts from the U.K., and Yemen’s Masirah TV, run by Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

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It’s not the first time that the U.S. has seized the domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.

Last October, the Department of Justice announced the takedown of nearly 100 websites used by the Revolutionary Guards. It said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a “global disinformation campaign” to influence U.S. policy and spread Iranian propaganda around the world.

Tuesday's seizures come just days after hardliner Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran's new president and as world powers try to resurrect the 2015 nuclear accord.

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

In his first news conference on Monday, newly-elected Raisi ruled out meeting with President Joe Biden or any limits to Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

Yuliya Talmazan reported from London, Ali Arouzi from Tehran.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.