Just like its abandonment of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, another unilateral move by the United States once more promises to affect life in Iran for the worse, this time in terms of internet freedom, analysts say.
In a surprise move on Wednesday, the US Justice Department seized 36 websites with links to the Iranian state for engaging in “disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations”.
The move initially arose suspicions of a hack since a disclaimer that said “this website has been seized” accompanied an Arabic text instead of Farsi, and State Department spokesman Ned Price refused to comment, indicating that US officials working on Iran were likely not in the loop.
The seizures come as Iran and world powers – including the US – are soon expected to start a seventh and perhaps final round of negotiations in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that the US abandoned in 2018.
The sanctions that the US has since imposed have been the harshest Iran has ever faced, and have led to rampant inflation and unemployment amid the deadliest COVID-19 pandemic of the Middle East.
The Justice Department eventually said three of the seized domains belonged to Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, while the rest, including Yemeni, Palestinian, and Bahraini outlets in English and Arabic, were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, reportedly run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign-looking Quds Force.
The seized websites belonged to outlets of the so-called “resistance axis” that Iran supports across the region to counter the influence of the US and regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The US blacklisted them with designations related to “terrorism”, and said American companies are not allowed to provide them with .com and .net domains without special authorisation from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
The move drew swift criticism from Iranian officials and restricted outlets, chief among them Press TV, the Iranian state-run television’s main English broadcasting channel.
Iran’s foreign ministry called the seizure an example of a “systematic effort to distort freedom of speech on a global level and silence independent voices in media”, adding that Iran will pursue the issue through legal channels.