On June 22, the United States seized three dozen web addresses affiliated with Iran and its proxies, including Tehran’s flagship international broadcaster Press TV. The Justice Department was able to take down the sites because the domain names were administered and sold by U.S. companies. Thirty-three websites operated by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) had conducted "disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations," the Justice Department said in a statement. Three others were used by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia group backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The U.S. seizures disabled the Iranian web addresses and the domains run by Iranian proxy groups. Users who visited them saw a message saying that the “domain” had been “seized by the United States Government.” Tehran protested the domain seizures as “unlawful” and threatened to pursue legal action. The move was “a systematic attempt by the United States to undermine freedom of expression on a global level and to silence independent voices in media,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on June 23.
But the impact on some Iranian sites, as in past cases, was short-lived. After its domain “presstv.com” was seized, Press TV advised users to instead visit “presstv.ir,” which is a domain registered inside Iran. The alternative domain is accessible worldwide too.
Domains are alphanumeric addresses that let users access websites on their computer browsers. Domain endings indicate the type of website; dot-coms are used mostly by businesses and commercial websites, while dot-orgs are often used by non-profit websites. But domain endings can also indicate the country where the website is hosted, such as “.ie” for Ireland or “.ir” for Iran.
Companies can sell domains internationally, but purchasers must abide by the laws of the country where the companies are based. In October 2020, the Treasury sanctioned IRTVU for being owned or controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2019. Under U.S. sanctions, IRTVU is not allowed to own or purchase domains or other web services from U.S. companies without permission from the Treasury. For example, “presstv.com” was run by the U.S. company Verisign. IRTVU and Kataib Hezbollah (which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2009) had not obtained the required licenses from the U.S. government to continue using the domains after sanctions were imposed.
The United States has seized domain names used by Iran and its proxies at least four other times since January 2020:
- In January 2020, the United States blocked access to “farsnews.com,” the English language web address for the Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Fars News Agency.
- In September 2020, the Justice Department took down two Kataib Hezbollah domains, “Aletejahtv.com” and “Aletejahtv.org”
- In October 2020, the Justice Department seized 92 domains used by the Revolutionary Guards to spread disinformation. Four of them - “newsstand7.com,” “usjournal.net,” “usjournal.us” and “twtoday.net” – purported to be independent news outlets.
- In November 2020, the Justice Department seized 29 domains used by the Revolutionary Guards. Four of them - “rpfront.com,” “ahtribune.com,” “awdnews.com” and “criticalstudies.org” - purported to be independent news outlets.
The following is a list of known web addresses seized by the U.S. government and a statement by the Justice Department on June 22, 2021.
New Domains Seized on June 22, 2021
- www.PressTV.com: Press TV is a state-owned English-language media outlet.
- https://www.alalamtv.net/ Al Alam is an Arabic-language media outlet owned by the state-owned media cooperation Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).
- https://www.almasirah.net/ Al Masirah TV is a Yemeni TV channel owned by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran. Al Masirah released a statement acknowledging the seizure.
- https://kafmedia.net/ KafMedia is an Iraqi website affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah.
- https://almaalomah.org/ AlMaalomah is an Iraqi website affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah.
- https://kataibhezbollah.org/ KataibHezbollah.org is an Iraqi website affiliated with Kataib Hezbollah.
- https://paltoday.tv/ Palestine Today reflects the views of Gaza-based groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have received arms, training and funds from Iran.
- https://www.karbala-tv.net/ Karbala TV is a channel owned by the Imam Hussein Shrine Foundation and affiliated with Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shiite authority.
- https://afaq.tv/ Afaq TV is an Iraqi channel owned by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, the head of the pro-Iran Dawa party.
- https://alforatnews.com/ Al Forat TV is owned by the Hikma movement, an Iraqi political party, headed by Iraqi Shiite cleric and politician Ammar al Hakim. He previously led the pro-Iran Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq before splitting away in 2017 and forming a new party to "get rid of sectarian and nationalist polarization."
- https://al-anwar.tv/ Al Anwar TV is an Iraqi satellite TV channel based in London. It is owned by Ayatollah Sadiq Al Husseini al Shirazi, who is critical of Iran. Mustafa Akhwand, the director of Shia Rights Watch, speculated that Al Anwar TV was mistakenly seized and that Washington may have been trying to seize Al Anwar 2, a pro-Iranian station set up to compete with Al Anwar TV.
- https://nabaa.tv/ Nabaa TV is a Lebanon-based broadcaster that reports on Saudi Arabia and airs programs critical of the Saudi government.
- https://lualuatv.com/ Lualua TV is a Bahraini opposition TV channel, headquartered in London. Lualua confirmed the seizure in a tweet and later said in a statement that the United States was “engaged in violations of press freedoms” and was spreading “fabrications.”
- https://www.aleshraq.tv/ Al Eshraq TV is affiliated with the Eshraq Cultural Foundation, an Iraqi NGO.
- https://ahlulbayt.tv/ Al Hulbayt TV is the “first exclusively English-language Shia Islamic television channel.” It is based in the UK and was founded by Shiite scholar Sayed Mahdi al Modarreisi, who is a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. On Twitter, the channel said that it had not received any legal notice from any government or regulatory body and will be seeking clarification from Ofcom, Britain’s top media agency.
- https://www.asiasat.tv/ Asia TV is an Iraqi satellite television channel based in Baghdad. Its chairman, Aras Habib, was sanctioned by the Treasury in May 2018 for helping the Revolutionary Guards transfer funds to Lebanese Hezbollah.
- https://www.alnaeem.tv/ Al Naeem TV
- https://www.almasaraloula.tv/ Al Masar al Oula
Past Domains Seized
January 2020: One domain name used by the Revolutionary Guards.
September 2020: Two domain names used by Kataib Hezbollah.
October 2020: 92 domain names used by or on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards.
November 2020: 29 domain names used by or on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards.
Department of Justice on June 22, 2021:
“United States Seizes Websites Used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union and Kata’ib Hizballah
“Today, pursuant to court orders, the United States seized 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and three websites operated by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), in violation of U.S. sanctions.
“On Oct. 22, 2020, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated IRTVU as a Specially Designated National (SDN) for being owned or controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC). SDNs are prohibited from obtaining services, including website and domain services, in the United States without an OFAC license. OFAC’s announcement explained that components of the government of Iran, to include IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations. 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.
“Three additional websites seized today were operated by KH. On July 2, 2009, OFAC designated KH an SDN, and the Department of State designated KH a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The announcements described KH as an Iraqi terrorist organization that committed, directed, supported or posed a significant risk of committing acts of violence against Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. OFAC further explained that the IRGC provides lethal support to KH and other Iraqi Shia militia groups who target and kill Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces. The three domains operated by KH were owned by a United States company. KH did not obtain a license from OFAC prior to utilizing the domain names.
“These website seizures were investigated by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and the FBI. The National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section prosecuted the seizure.
“Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the Justice Department’s National Security Division; Special Agent in Charge J.C. (Chris) Hacker, of the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office; and Special Agent in Charge Ariel Joshua Leinwand, of the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement’s Atlanta Office, made the announcement.
“The National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section is investigating this matter in coordination with the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division and Atlanta Field Office.”
Julia Dickson, an intern at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, helped assemble this report.