US government announces seizure of 92 Iran-linked websites

The US seizure of the news sites allegedly connected to the Iranian government came before new US sanctions on Iranian banks.

al-monitor A screenshot shows the message received by visitors to Iran-linked sites seized by the FBI. Photo by US Department of Justice.

Oct 8, 2020

The US government seized the domains of 92 websites allegedly operated by the Iranian government, the Department of Justice announced Wednesday. The websites were hosted by US companies and spread disinformation to American and international audiences, according to the department.

“Iran cannot be allowed to hide behind fake news sites,” said David Anderson, the US attorney for the Northern District of California, in a press release.

The move came a day before the United States announced new sanctions on Iran’s financial industry.

Four of the websites were operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to target US audiences and portrayed themselves as independent news outlets. The others focused on the Middle East, Western Europe and Southeast Asia, according to the Department of Justice. The web pages now show a Department of Justice notice reading “THIS WEBSITE HAS BEEN SEIZED."

The domains for the websites were all owned and operated by US companies, which allowed the US government to seize them. The IRGC is a designated terrorist organization in the United States. Providing services to the government of Iran is also illegal under the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations without a certificate from the Department of the Treasury, the Justice Department said.

Foreign agents in the United States must also register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The four websites targeting US audiences did not do so, according to the department.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to Al-Monitor’s request for information on the US companies that allegedly hosted the Iranian government websites.

The US government has seized other Iran-linked websites recently, but not this many. In September, the US seized two websites of the Iraqi news outlet Aletejah, which is affiliated with the pro-Iran Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq. In August, the US seized the websites of three energy companies it said facilitated an oil deal between Iran and Venezuela. The companies later challenged the US government in court.

Google, Twitter and Facebook assisted with the investigation, according to the Department of Justice.

Last week, Twitter said it removed around 130 Twitter accounts used by Tehran to influence the discourse on US presidential candidate debates. The social media company said it received the necessary information from the FBI.

In August, Google announced it closed 16 YouTube accounts purportedly linked to the Iranian government that posted on the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and US-Saudi relations. In April, Facebook closed hundreds of accounts it said posted spam and false content on behalf of Iran.

The United States maintains extensive sanctions on Iran and opposes Tehran’s support for its proxy groups in the Middle East. These groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and several militias in Iraq, have clashed with both the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Trump administration also believes that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon, which Iran denies.

On Thursday, the Department of the Treasury announced fresh sanctions on 18 Iranian banks. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the move on Twitter. “Amid Covid19 pandemic, U.S. regime wants to blow up our remaining channels to pay for food & medicine,” Zarif tweeted. “Iranians WILL survive this latest of cruelties.”

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