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US seizes dozens of Iranian websites including state-run news outlets

Press TV and Al-Alam News among the Iranian sites seized by the US, along with at least two sites affiliated with Yemen's Houthi movement
A screen grab of the banner that appears on the blocked websites

US authorities seized around three dozen Iranian websites on Tuesday, including state-run news outlets, a move likely to inflame tensions ahead of nuclear talks expected to resume next month.

The US Department of Justice said in a statement that it seized 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and another three run by the Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah militia in Iraq in "violation of US sanctions."

Notices appeared on Iran's Press TV and Al-Alam, as well as two of the Yemen Houthi movement's al-Masirah websites, all of which were taken offline on Tuesday with banners reading: "This website has been seized... by the United States Government in accordance with a seizure warrant."

The Justice Department alleged that the sites had been used by components of the Iranian government "disguised as news organizations or media outlets" to target the US "with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations."

The department said IRTVU was subject to sanctions because it was owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2019.

'This seizure... reveals once again the deceit of the free speech slogans that America promotes'

- Al-Masirah News

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 news agency that the channel was struggling to “figure out the reasons” for the seizure.

Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president's office questioned the timing of the move as talks on bringing Washington back into the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers are reportedly making headway.

"We are using all international and legal means to... condemn... this mistaken policy of the United States," Mahmoud Vaezi, the director of the president's office, told reporters on Wednesday.

"It appears not constructive when talks for a deal on the nuclear issue are under way."

The takedowns come just days after the Iranian presidential election victory of Ebrahim Raisi.

On Monday, Raisi said there were "no obstacles" standing in the way of restoring ties with Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia, but ruled out the possibilities of meeting with President Joe Biden or negotiating over Tehran's ballistic missile programme.

'American piracy'

In a post to Twitter, Press TV shared a screenshot of the message that appeared in place of its website, saying it "seems to be a coordinated action" as a similar message also appeared on websites of other "Iranian and regional television networks". 

The banners said that the websites were seized under US laws that allow civil and criminal forfeiture of property involved in "trafficking in nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological weapons technology or material, or the manufacture, importation, sale, or distribution of a controlled substance", as well as a set of laws that deal with presidential authority concerning "unusual and extraordinary threats" and "declaration of national emergencies". 

Launched in July 2007, Press TV is the international English-language news channel that runs under the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), Tehran’s state media agency. 

IRIB has been sanctioned by the US since 2013 - and remained so even after the Obama-era nuclear deal - under a US law that gives the US Treasury Department the authority to designate those in Iran who restrict or deny the free flow of information to or from the Iranian people. Still, Press TV has remained operational. 

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The Houthi movement's alternative domain for its al-Masirah news website, which remained operational, released a statement accusing the US of seizing its site "without any justification or prior notice".

"This seizure of the almasirah.net and other allied websites reveals once again the deceit of the free speech slogans that America promotes," the agency said. "We condemn this American piracy."

Last year the US Treasury Department blocked and seized the official domain name of Iranian state-run newspaper "Iran". 

The website, once registered under the domain "iran-newspaper.com", is still offline but can now be found instead under "irannewspaper.ir". 

In 2012, Nicole Navas, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, told Wired that the US government has the authority to seize any website ending in .com, .net or .org because the companies that have the contracts to administer the sites are based on US soil.