The Justice Department has seized more than 30 websites with direct links to Iran’s government and state media in violation of US sanctions and connected to “malign influence operations” — as a new hardline leader takes the helm in the Islamic Republic.
News of the agency’s seizures came Tuesday in a press release, which said that the department had taken control of 33 websites used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, a group controlled by Tehran, as well as three sites run by Kata’ib Hezbollah, another name for the Iranian-backed militia “in violation of U.S. sanctions.”
The sites, some of which quickly re-launched under new domains after being taken down, had not acquired the necessary licenses to operate in the United States.
Additionally, the agency said, these sites, “disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.”
The department said the move was a “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 U.S. voters.”
The move from DoJ comes at a precarious time in the United States’ relationship with Iran.
On Monday, Iran’s new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judge who was elected last week, said he would not meet with President Biden and called Iran’s ballistic missile program “non-negotiable.”
“The U.S. is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran,” Raisi said at his first televised news conference.
Asked if he would meet with the US president, Raisi responded: “No.”
On the nuclear deal, Raisi, a protege of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanded the US “lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran.”
Achieving that goal, he added, was “central to our foreign policy.”
The Obama administration brokered the controversial Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. The accord reduced sanctions against Iran in exchange for the country reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium needed to fuel nuclear weapons.
It also capped the purity at which Tehran could refine uranium at 3.67 percent, but did not include limitations on delivery systems and other checks on Iran being able to ultimately produce a nuclear bomb when the deal expires.
The Trump administration withdrew the US from the pact in 2018, with the then-commander-in-chief arguing that “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail.”
Iran began breaching the deal shortly after, as tensions ratcheted up between Washington and Tehran.
President Biden pledged he would re-enter the 2015 deal “as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” adding that he would only support doing so if Iran pledged to follow strict compliance measures.
Following Biden’s election in November, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said his country would fully implement the terms of the Obama-era agreement if Biden lifted the Trump-era sanctions, arguing it could be done with “three executive orders.”
The administration has refused, and Tehran has continued to not abide by the agreement, enriching its uranium to upwards of 60 percent purity, its highest level ever.
While 60 percent enriched uranium falls short of the 90 percent purity level needed for viable nuclear weapons, it represents a step toward armament.