Two of the websites, Al-Alam and PressTV, are owned by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Iran's state media corporation. PressTV is an English-language news service, but Al-Alam is broadcast in Arabic and Persian in addition to English. However, another, Al-Masirah, was founded in 2012 Beirut, Lebanon, by Yemen's Ansarullah movement, also known as the Houthis. According to AP, the news site Palestine Today, which reports from a pro-Hamas point of view, was also seized.
"The domain presstv.com has been seized by the United States Government in accordance with a seizure warrant issued pursuant to 18 USC §§981, 982 and 50 USC 1701-1705 as part of a law enforcement action by the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation," the message on PressTV's website reads. The messages on all the websites, including for other languages, are identical, save for the name of the outlet.
The sections of US law cited by the notice are for civil forfeiture; criminal forfeiture; Unusual and extraordinary threat; declaration of national emergency; and the exercise of Presidential authorities.
The US Department of Justice said in a statement Tuesday evening that it had seized 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and three websites operated by Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group, in violation of US sanctions.
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) June 23, 2021
According to the release, the seizures stem from an October 22, 2020, decision by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to designate IRTVU as a Specially Designated National (SDN) "for being owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. SDNS are prohibited from obtaining services, including website and domain services, in the United States without an OFAC license."
"According to OFAC, the designation of IRTVU as an SDN was in response to the Iranian regime targeting the United States' electoral process with brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters," the DOJ continues. "OFAC's announcement explained that components of the government, disguised as news organization or media outlets, targeted the United States to subvert US democratic processes. Thirty-three of the websites seized today were operated by IRTVU. The 33 domains are owned by a United States company. IRTVU did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to utilizing the domain names."
The three Kata'ib Hezbollah websites, the release notes, were seized in response to a 2009 OFAC designation of the group as an SDN and the Department of State's designation of it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
PressTV issued a brief statement on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, saying only that "In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message appears on the websites of Iranian and regional television networks that claims the domains of the websites have been 'seized by the United States Government.'"
In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message appears on the websites of Iranian and regional television networks that claims the domains of the websites have been “seized by the United States Government.” pic.twitter.com/JloU56LvpL— Press TV (@PressTV) June 22, 2021
Al-Masirah also released a statement, saying the agency is "not surprised by this decision, as it comes from those that have supervised the most heinous crimes against our people," referring to US support for the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, which has raged since 2015 and killed nearly a quarter-million people.
"This American ban on the Al Masirah Net website and other friendly website reveals, once again, the falsehood of the slogans of freedom of expression and all the other headlines promoted by the United States of America, including its inability to confront the truth," the statement continues.
"This American ban on the Al Masirah Net website and other friendly website reveals, once again, the falsehood of the slogans of freedom of expression and all the other headlines promoted by the United States of America, including its inability to confront the truth."— Rune Agerhus (@Aldanimarki) June 22, 2021
This isn't the first time many of these outlets have come under attack online. In October, Twitter summarily suspended Al-Masirah's account without giving justification except a vaguely worded claim the account had violated their terms. In January, Facebook deleted the main page of PressTV without warning or explanation, only to restore it several hours later following an appeal by the news agency.
In October 2020, the DOJ seized 92 domain names it claimed were "unlawfully used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to engage in a global disinformation campaign." They claimed the websites were in violation of both US sanctions against Iran and the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). An image included in the DOJ's news release at the time shows a notice almost identical to those on the websites shut down Tuesday.
This comes just days after presidential elections in Iran, in which Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative politician and the country's chief jurist, handily won. While direct talks between Raisi and US President Joe Biden seem off the menu at the moment, negotiations in Vienna to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are continuing. The US left the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, and in response Tehran began to reduce its commitments to low uranium output made under the deal.
On Monday, US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price told reporters the Biden administration regarded the elections as "pretty manufactured. This was not a free and fair election process." Tehran replied that the US doesn't have the bearing to comment on other countries' elections, an action they said amounted to meddling.