Why is US seizing Iran Press TV, other websites?

July 1, 2021

Notices appeared on Tuesday on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been seized by the United States government as part of law enforcement action.

Iranian news agencies said that the US government had seized several Iranian media websites and sites belonging to groups affiliated with Iran such as Yemen’s Houthi movement.

What is this campaign about and could it blow up nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran?

In short, it is a long overdue move by the Biden administration to use some of the tools America has in hosting much of the Internet to fight back against rogue countries who abuse the Internet to try to tear the US apart with misinformation campaigns.

This has nothing to do with free speech. A US government announcement made it clear that the websites that were seized are fronts for the Iranian government to “subvert US democratic processes.”

The US could do far more and hack wide swaths of Iran’s Internet-based services and infrastructure.

All it did on Tuesday was to tell Iran that it could no longer abuse American Internet property to try to tear down the US without consequences.

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For years, at least since Russia’s success in using social media to influence aspects of the 2016 US presidential elections, Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran have all used varying levels of social media to try to systematically impact US public opinion.

In Iran’s case, the ayatollahs have been getting away with the equivalent of cyber “murder” for years, with practically no public consequences.

Whether under the Trump or Biden administration and whether confronted by aggression or engagement, one thing that has stayed consistent has been Iranian attempts to interfere with US public opinion and to try to turn different American ethnic sectors against each other.

Sometimes the goal has been to get Americans to be more positive about Iran or to fear war with Iran; sometimes to cause ethnic strife to generally weaken the US and provoke embarrassing incidents which the Islamic Republic can then point to in rejecting American criticism of its authoritarian system.

The US also hit back at some of Iran’s proxies online.

The website of Masirah TV, which is run by the Houthis Yemen group, reads:

“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.”

Websites tied to Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah, which regularly fires rockets on Americans in Iraq, were also targeted.

Iran’s Arabic-language Alalam TV said on its Telegram channel: “US authorities shut down Al-Alam TV’s website.”

Notices have also appeared on websites of Iran’s Press TV and Lualua TV, a Bahraini independent channel which broadcasts from Britain.

Last October, US prosecutors seized a network of Web domains that they said were used in a campaign by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to spread political disinformation around the world.

The US 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.

This is the next step, though seizing a high-profile website like Iran’s Press TV will create unpredictable ripples.

Will this negatively impact nuclear negotiations?

Probably not.

Tehran may make threats and demand the US not take such actions going forward if there is a nuclear deal.

But the US will likely respond that it doesn’t take such actions against any normal countries – only nations that abuse the Internet to try to destabilize America.

At the end of the day, the ayatollahs need the nuclear deal.

Their economy never recovered fully even after the 2015 nuclear deal; and since Trump reimposed sanctions in 2018, their economy has been in shambles.

Further, long before these website seizures, the Biden administration has made it clear that it will maintain all nonnuclear sanctions on Iran related to its terrorist behavior, just as the Obama administration did.

And Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signed the 2015 deal not because he liked giving up enough enriched uranium for around 10 nuclear bombs, but because of the economic pressure. With all of his threats and hatred for the “big Satan” US long before the website seizures, all signs are he will make the same businesslike calculation this time.

So there will still likely be a nuclear deal by, before or not long after the new Ebrahim Raisi administration takes over Iran in August.

Whether the timing of the websites’ seizure was meant to send a message to Raisi, to get it in under the wire before the deal is signed, or whether this was just when the Biden administration got around to lining up all of its cards to obtain warrants in court to do so, is a separate and interesting question.

This does not end free speech, and it will not end interference by Iran or other foreign countries with the US or Israel’s democratic processes or social fault lines.

But it is a new sign that the Biden administration has started to act with more intolerance for cyber and social media interference from the Islamic Republic and others.

Reuters contributed to this report.