Since Tuesday, visitors to Presstv.com, the website of Iran’s state-owned global broadcaster, have been met with the following message:
PressTV was the best known of 33 websites whose domains were seized by U.S. authorities on Tuesday.
According to the Justice Department’s statement, 30 of these sites were controlled by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, which is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the powerful military force that exudes significant control over Iran’s foreign policy and economy. Others sites seized included Al-Masirah, the news service of the Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement; and Palestine Today, a pro-Hamas news outlet.
The U.S. also seized three websites linked to Kataib Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia group that has been blamed for attacking U.S. troops in Iraq.
The legal basis for the IRTVU seizures came from a 2018 Donald Trump executive order, which authorizes sanctions against foreign entities involved in interference in U.S. elections. The U.S. has seized Iranian sites accused of spreading disinformation before, but none as prominent as PressTV, the country’s flagship international broadcaster launched in 2007. Like its counterparts, Russia’s RT and China’s CGTN, PressTV bills itself as an alternative as an alternative to the Western-centric perspective of other global English-language news outlets. It’s also acquired a well-earned reputation for trafficking in outlandish conspiracy theories and antisemitism. PressTV has had access to its YouTube account taken away by Google several times, and its main Facebook page was temporarily deleted earlier this year.
However, while the Justice Department’s statement is a bit vague, it does not appear that this seizure was the result of any content on PressTV itself. The issue, rather, is its links to the IRTVU and the Revolutionary Guards, which were sanctioned by the Treasury Department shortly before the election last year “for attempting to influence elections in the United States.”
According to a recent National Intelligence Council report partially declassified in March, Iran “carried out an influence campaign during the 2020 US election season intended to undercut the reelection prospects of former President Trump and to further its longstanding objectives of exacerbating divisions in the US, creating confusion, and undermining the legitimacy of US elections and institutions.”
In one of the best known examples of this campaign, Iranian cyber actors sent fake emails to Democratic voters in several U.S. states, purportedly from the Proud Boys, threatening them with violence if they didn’t vote for Trump. In another, just after the election, Iran allegedly circulated a “hit list” of U.S. government officials who had refuted Trump’s election fraud claims.
This is a very different sort of influence operation from PressTV’s content, which, inaccurate and inflammatory as it may be, is not pretending it’s anything it’s not. Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies online disinformation, notes that while Iran typically gears its online influence operations toward spreading and promoting its own official propaganda, some of its actions during the 2020 election were “more following the Russian playbook, to be trying to foment violence or discord in the U.S.” He sees the U.S. government’s enforcement action this week as “a way to send a message the Iranian interference actions were unacceptable.”
It’s a very interesting time to be sending that message. On Friday, Iran held elections in which Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, trounced a weak opposition field handpicked by the country’s clerical establishment in the race to succeed current President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal which Trump withdrew from in 2018. The conventional wisdom in Washington right now is that next six weeks, Rouhani’s lame duck period, are critical for the fitful negotiations to revive the deal: If the agreement is in place before Raisi takes office, he’ll benefit from the economic benefits of sanctions relief but can blame his predecessor if, say, President Tom Cotton pulls the U.S. out again four years from now.
While Iran has condemned the seizure of the websites, it doesn’t have many means to retaliate. This may have been a way of signaling to Iran that there are consequences for election interference, and signaling to U.S. voters that the Biden administration takes this issue more seriously than its predecessor, while doing so in such a way that it won’t jeopardize the nuclear talk and doing it before the two sides sign an agreement that will include (unrelated) sanctions relief for Iran.
The incident also highlights the extraordinary power the U.S. still enjoys in cyberspace. The American government was able to do this because the sites’ addresses were registered with U.S. companies. The site is currently back up at a .ir domain. Its bigger headache may be that thousands of its article links are now broken.
Dealing with state-sponsored sites is a tricky policy issue for the U.S. Sites like PressTV do spread misinformation and propaganda. Reporters for other state-run outlets, like China CGTN, have been credibly accused of acting as spies. But the Biden administration also must draw a clear distinction between its own policies and those of governments like Iran, which blocks foreign social media sites, censors critical foreign outlets, and jails reporters. It also shouldn’t follow the example of the previous administration, which placed restrictions on Chinese reporters in the U.S. only to see Beijing retaliate against U.S. reporters in China.
Disinformation and election interference are serious problems, but a world in which governments all reserve the right to tightly control the information that can reach their citizens from outside their borders is exactly the sort of world that governments like Russia, China, and Iran want to create.