Just like its abandonment of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, another unilateral move by the United States once more promises to affect life in Iran for the worse, this time in terms of internet freedom, analysts say.
In a surprise move on Wednesday, the US Justice Department seized 36 websites with links to the Iranian state for engaging in “disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations”.
The move initially arose suspicions of a hack since a disclaimer that said “this website has been seized” accompanied an Arabic text instead of Farsi, and State Department spokesman Ned Price refused to comment, indicating that US officials working on Iran were likely not in the loop.
The seizures come as Iran and world powers – including the US – are soon expected to start a seventh and perhaps final round of negotiations in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that the US abandoned in 2018.
The sanctions that the US has since imposed have been the harshest Iran has ever faced, and have led to rampant inflation and unemployment amid the deadliest COVID-19 pandemic of the Middle East.
The Justice Department eventually said three of the seized domains belonged to Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, while the rest, including Yemeni, Palestinian, and Bahraini outlets in English and Arabic, were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union, reportedly run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign-looking Quds Force.
The seized websites belonged to outlets of the so-called “resistance axis” that Iran supports across the region to counter the influence of the US and regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The US blacklisted them with designations related to “terrorism”, and said American companies are not allowed to provide them with .com and .net domains without special authorisation from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
The move drew swift criticism from Iranian officials and restricted outlets, chief among them Press TV, the Iranian state-run television’s main English broadcasting channel.
Iran’s foreign ministry called the seizure an example of a “systematic effort to distort freedom of speech on a global level and silence independent voices in media”, adding that Iran will pursue the issue through legal channels.
While the US may have given itself the ability to exert influence over vast sections of the internet, its actions could have far-reaching ramifications beyond its control.
Observers fear the seizures will only strengthen arguments in favour of the so-called National Information Network (NIN), a massive internet nationalisation initiative in Iran.
There is precedent for it, after all.
Foreign governments have no right to spread disinformation inside the United States, obviously. But US citizens and residents have a constitutionally protected right to receive information from abroad. Not clear that this right has been given appropriate weight here.
In January 2020, when the news was still dominated by the consequences of the US drone assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, and the IRGC firing of missiles at the US bases and its shooting down of a passenger plane, the hardline Fars News Agency’s .com domain was blocked.
Shortly after, the Donald Trump administration also seized the website of the IRAN daily newspaper and several other affiliated outlets.
This was followed months later by the seizure of two websites utilised by Kataeb Hezbollah, and 92 domain names “unlawfully used by Iran’s IRGC to engage in a global disinformation campaign”.
Those incidents gave credence to arguments of US interference and censoring used by Iranian officials to convince the public and push ahead with the NIN, which has been in the works for more than 10 years.
Sadjad Bonabi, an infrastructure development official with the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, said in January 2020 that the infrastructures provided by the NIN have “alleviated many of the concerns from cruel sanctions”.
“These are excuses Iranian authorities – regardless of whether they come from the hardline factions or are part of President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government – use to justify the need to strengthen the nationalisation of the Iranian Internet inwards in the NIN project,” Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with British human rights organisation ARTICLE19, told Al Jazeera.
But while the NIN can have positive effects, like easing access to online services, reducing costs and increasing efficiency, some Iranians are concerned about its potential use in restricting internet access.
Those concerns were proven true in November 2019 when, amid nationwide protests that were sparked by an overnight tripling of fuel costs, the state almost completely shut off global internet access for a week – longer in several cities – and began a crackdown that rights groups say killed hundreds of people. Only some local internet services were accessible through the NIN during that time.
Moreover, officials including President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, have talked about a layered internet access model and “legal VPNs” (virtual private networks) that would provide different levels of internet access to people based on profession among other things.
Meanwhile, the US may not stand to gain much in the long term by blacklisting domains linked with Iran, especially as they will not be taken offline.
PressTV, for instance, switched to a .ir domain immediately after having its .com address seized. The same was true with Fars when its website was seized last year.
After Wednesday’s seizures, Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi promised his ministry will provide the “necessary infrastructures” to the seized outlets.
The language US officials used in their announcement on the seizures suggests the Iranian outlets were also targeted for trying to influence the 2020 presidential elections, something ARTICLE19’s Alimardani finds strange.
“This in itself is a strange excuse for sanctioning these entities, given these outlets are considered ‘white propaganda’ outlets and not agents of ‘influence operations’,” she said.
She said while the US may have caused some inconvenience for the outlets, including by hurting their branding efforts and Google search results, its move was “shortsighted” as it lent support to their argument that the US is an imperial and bullying power.
“America further diminishes its standing and efforts as a promoter of ‘internet freedom’ with these efforts,” she said.
“While not directly kicking off innocent Iranian civilian users in this case, the move is indirectly pushing Iranian policy towards more nationalisation and promotion of .ir domains for websites hosted by ordinary Iranians.”
Sanctions expert Brian O’Toole told Al Jazeera the “terrorism” designation provides the US Department of Justice with legal grounds to take such actions.
“However, even if DOJ has grounds legally for seizing these Iranian websites, it’s hard to understand how this would be a deterrent in the future or have material impact to these news outlets,” said the former OFAC adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Instead, I worry that the action comes across as overly heavy-handed and will engender criticism of the United States for cracking down on ‘speech’, all while having little to no effect in thwarting terrorism [or electoral interference].”