The U.S. Justice Department seized roughly three dozen state-linked news websites mostly linked to Iranian disinformation efforts on Tuesday, it has been reported.
The move appeared to be a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries after the election of new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi.
It also comes after President Joe Biden had vowed to start a cyber war against Russia in retaliation for any future hacks of companies and critical infrastructure in the United States.
Iranian state-run news agency IRNA announced the U.S. government seizures without providing further information, the Associated Press reported.
The American government has not officially announced the news but an official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that the U.S. had effectively taken down the websites.
Another official who spoke with Reuters told the outlet that an announcement about the takedowns was expected to come soon.
Federal takedown notices also appeared on Iran state television and other news websites linked to the Iranian government
The move appeared to be a far-reaching crackdown on Iranian media amid heightened tensions between the two countries after the election of new Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi
The American government has not officially announced the news
Notices appeared earlier on Tuesday on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been seized by the U.S. government as part of law enforcement action, Reuters reported.
Iranian news agencies said that the U.S. government had seized several Iranian media websites and sites belonging to groups affiliated with Iran such as Yemen's Houthi movement. Some sites later started to display as normal.
The website of the Arabic-language satellite news channel Masirah TV, which is run by Yemeni Houthis, read: 'The domain almasirah.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.'
The site quickly opened up a new, working website at www.almasirah.com. That Al-Misrah website address is now filled with news articles about groups condemning the seizures by the U.S. government.
Yemen's Houthi rebel group announced that its Al-Masirah channel would continue its mission of 'confronting the American and Israeli acts of piracy against our nation, by any means.'
Iran's Arabic language Alalam TV said on its Telegram channel: 'U.S. authorities shut down Al-Alam TV's website.'
Federal takedown notices also appeared on Iran state television's Press TV and on Arabic-language Bahraini independent channel LuaLua TV, which broadcasts from Britain.
The U.S. government also took over the domain name of the news website Palestine Today, which reflects the view points of Gaza-based Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, redirecting the site to the same takedown notice.
Domains tied to Iran-backed groups in Iraq and to Hezbollah, the Lebanese military-political faction, were also frozen with the US Justice Department message, AFP reported.
Most of the domains seized appeared to be '.net' and '.com' domains, which are generic top-level domains as opposed to country-specific domains. Seizing a country-specific domain such as Iran's '.ir' would be apt to produce widespread international condemnation as a violation of sovereignty.
Press TV, launched in June 2007, is the English-language service of the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Its Iran-based website, PressTV.ir, was not affected but PressTV.com.au - an Australia-registered site - was among those apparently seized. It redirected to PressTV.com, which bore the takedown notice.
Responsibility for providing name service for the domain name presstv.com was apparently switched to Amazon name servers on Tuesday at mid-afternoon European time, said internet infrastructure expert Ron Guilmette. That suggests the domain was indeed wrested from its previous owner.
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.
'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',' Press TV said on Twitter.
The semi-official Iranian news agency YJC agency said on Tuesday the U.S. move 'demonstrates that calls for freedom of speech are lies'.
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 Islamic Republic see the world. Fierce criticism of British and American foreign policy is common. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, IRIB has been in the hands of hard-liners who back Iran's government.
Press TV has previously run into trouble with Western authorities over its reporting. The Anti-Defamation League has criticized the channel as 'one of the world´s leading dispensers of conspiratorial anti-Semitism in English.'
The seizures were also not the first time that the U.S. has seized domain names of sites it accuses of spreading disinformation.
Last October, the Justice Department announced the takedown of nearly a hundred websites linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard which officials said were used to spread political disinformation around the world.
The U.S. Justice Department said then that it had taken control of 92 domains used by the IRGC to pose as independent media outlets targeting audiences in the United States, Europe, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The U.S. said the sites, operating under the guise of genuine news outlets, were waging a 'global disinformation campaign' to influence U.S. policy and push Iranian propaganda around the world.
The takedowns come as world powers scramble to resurrect Tehran's tattered 2015 nuclear deal and just days after Raisi's election victory.
On Monday, Raisi, known for his hostility to the West, staked out a hard-line position in his first news conference. He ruled out the possibilities of meeting with President Joe Biden or negotiating over Tehran's ballistic missile program and support for regional militias - concerns the Biden administration wants addressed in future talks.
Relations between Iran and the U.S. have deteriorated for years following then-President Donald Trump's withdrawal from Tehran's nuclear deal and return of devastating sanctions on the country.
That decision has seen Iran, over time, gradually abandon every limit on uranium enrichment. The country is now enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.
Iran provides support to militant groups in the region, such as Lebanon's militant Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels, as it seeks to wield its influence far afield and counter its foes.