Washington’s seizure of 33 websites run by Iran-linked media, Tehran warned on Wednesday, was “not constructive” for ongoing talks to re-enter the US into a landmark nuclear deal.
The US Justice Department announced the seizure of 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites, as well as three from the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, alleging that they were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.
Iran’s state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president’s office questioned the timing of the move, which came as talks to reintroduce Washington into the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers were reportedly progressing.
“We are using all international and legal means to… condemn… the United States’ mistaken policy,” Mahmoud Vaezi, director of the president’s office, told reporters.
“It does not appear to be constructive when talks for a nuclear deal are underway.”
The 2015 agreement saw Iran accept limits on its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, but in 2018, then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement and increased sanctions, prompting Iran to backtrack on its own commitments. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has indicated his willingness to return to the agreement, and state parties, including the United Kingdom, China, France, Germany, and Russia, have been negotiating its revival in Vienna since early April.
On Sunday, EU negotiator Enrique Mora stated that the parties involved in the talks were “closer” to saving the Iran nuclear deal, but that some issues remained.
The US action also comes just days after Iranians elected ultraconservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi as president in an election described by the US State Department as neither free nor fair. Visitors to leading Iranian media websites such as Press TV and Al-Alam, the country’s main English- and Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as Yemen’s Huthis’ Al-Masirah TV channel, were greeted with single-page statements declaring that 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 33 websites were controlled by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), which was in turn controlled by the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The IRTVU and IRGC have both been added to the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to do business with them or their subsidiaries.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group that owned three of the seized sites, is a hardline military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated as a terrorist organization.
Other web domains seized included Palestine-Al Youm, a Palestinian-directed broadcaster, and an Arabic-language religious and cultural channel, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The United States also blocked access to Bahrain’s LuaLua TV, which is run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut.
The IRIB accused the US of stifling free expression and collaborating with Israel and Saudi Arabia “to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region.”
Press TV and Al-Alam switched to.ir domains, and their websites remained accessible. They are also still active on social media, primarily Twitter, and their live broadcasts have continued unabated. Al-Masirah quickly launched a new website with the same name but a.com domain instead of.net. Meanwhile, LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to air new shows.
The Justice Department sanctioned IRTVU last year for “brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters.”
Meanwhile, US officials have linked Kataeb Hezbollah to rocket and other attacks on American soldiers and diplomats in Iraq, and claim the group is supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The Justice Department did not identify the US company or companies which owned the domains that hosted the websites, or explain how they had been able to host them contrary to sanctions.