Tehran warned Wednesday that Washington's seizure of 33 websites run by Iran-linked media was "not constructive" for ongoing talks on bringing the United States back into a landmark nuclear deal.
The US Justice Department said it had seized 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites, as well as three of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, which it said were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.
Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president's office questioned the timing of the move as talks on bringing Washington back into the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers are reportedly making headway.
"We are using all international and legal means to… condemn… this mistaken policy of the United States," the director of the president's office, Mahmoud Vaezi, told reporters.
"It appears not constructive when talks for a deal on the nuclear issue are under way."
The 2015 deal saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear activities in return for an easing of sanctions, but in 2018 then US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement and ramped up sanctions, prompting Iran to pull back from its own commitments.
Trump's successor Joe Biden has signalled his readiness to return to the deal and state parties — also including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have been negotiating its revival in Vienna since early April.
EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal but that sticking points remain.
– Domain switch –
The US action also comes just after Iranians chose ultraconservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi as president in an election the US State Department characterised as neither free nor fair.
Visitors to leading Iranian media sites like Press TV and Al-Alam, the country's main English- and Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen's Huthis, were met with single-page statements declaring the website "has been seized by the United States government" accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department.
The 33 websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), itself controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC).
Both the IRTVU and IRGC have been placed on the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to have business with them or their subsidiaries.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group which owned three sites that were seized, is a hardline military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated a terror group.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the immediate parent of Al-Alam, reported that other web domains, including Palestine-Al Youm, a Palestinian-directed broadcaster, and an Arabic-language religious and cultural channel were among those seized.
Bahrain's LuaLua TV, a channel run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut, was also frozen by the United States, according to an AFP correspondent in the region.
IRIB accused the US of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia "to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region."
TV stations such as Press TV and Al-Alam switched to .ir domains and their websites remained accessible. They are also still present on social media, mainly Twitter, and their broadcasts have continued uninterrupted.
On the website of their political wing, the Huthis branded the action "American piracy and copyright confiscation".
"The government of the United States of America is banning the Al-Masirah website without any justification or even prior notice," they said.
Al-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.
Meanwhile LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to broadcast new programs, AFP journalists said.
– 'Malign influence operations' –
IRTVU was designated for sanctions last year for "brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters," the Justice Department said.
"IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organisations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations," it said in a statement.
US officials meanwhile have tied Kataeb Hezbollah to rocket and other attacks on sites in Iraq where American soldiers and diplomats reside, and say the group is supported by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The Justice Department did not identify the US company or companies which owned the domains that hosted the websites, or explain how they had been able to host them contrary to sanctions.