September 22, 2021

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US seizes three dozen websites used for ‘Iranian disinformation’

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Seized sites include Press TV and Houthi and Palestinian outlets. Move comes amid tense efforts to revive nuclear deal.

The US Justice Department and Commerce Department have seized about three dozen websites, many of them linked to Iranian disinformation activities, US government sources told Reuters and The Associated Press news agencies on Tuesday.

An official US government announcement is expected later.

The sites appear to include Iran state media’s English-language outlet Press TV, Yemeni Houthi-run Al Masirah satellite news channel and Iranian state TV’s Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam.

Visiting the sites produced a US government alert on Tuesday. The notice says the websites were seized “as part of law enforcement action” by the US Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The US government also took over the domain name of the news website Palestine Today, which reflects the viewpoints of Gaza-based groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, redirecting the site to the same notice.

Last October, the Department of Justice announced it had taken down nearly 100 websites linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. The US said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a “global disinformation campaign” to influence US policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.

The move come just days after the election victory of Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, known for his hostility to western countries.

Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran June 21, 2021 [Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters]

Raisi’s election is seen as a blow to efforts to resurrect Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, from which former US President Donald Trump withdrew in 2017.

Raisi took a hardline position in his first news conference. He ruled out the possibilities of meeting US President Joe Biden or negotiating over Tehran’s ballistic missile programme and support for regional militias – concerns the Biden administration wants to address in future talks.

Relations between Iran and the US have deteriorated for years following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of devastating US sanctions.

That decision has seen Iran, over time, gradually abandon every limit on uranium enrichment even as it continued negotiations with European nations attempting to salvage the deal.

The country is now enriching uranium to 60 percent, its highest level ever, although still short of weapons-grade levels.

The US and EU partners have attended six rounds of informal talks in Vienna in recent weeks. Iranian and US officials have not met face-to-face. Diplomats said on June 20 the talks had made progress and a decision was now up to the governments involved.

Press TV

Press TV, launched in June 2007, is perhaps the most well known of the seized sites. It is the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) English-language service.

There are no private television or radio stations in Iran. Satellite dishes, while widespread, also are illegal. That leaves IRIB with a monopoly on domestic airwaves.

Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2021 [File: Lisi Niesner/Reuters]

Marzieh Hashemi, a prominent Press TV anchorwoman who, in 2019, was arrested as material witness in an unspecified criminal case and has appeared before a grand jury in Washington, told The Associated Press that the channel was struggling to “figure out the reasons” for the seizure.

While airing in Iran, Press TV focuses predominantly on international affairs through the lens of how leaders in the Iran see the world. Fierce criticism of British, US and Israeli foreign policy is common. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, IRIB has been in the hands of hardliners who back Iran’s government.

Supporters of Press TV view the site’s editorial line as anti-Zionist, but the outlet has previously run into trouble with Western authorities for its reporting. The Anti-Defamation League has criticised the channel as “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English”.

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