WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration on Tuesday blocked access to several dozen Iran-related websites, US and Iranian officials said, as negotiations to bring the United States and Tehran back to a an international nuclear deal appeared to be close to being concluded.
The United States blocked the sites days after Iran held a presidential vote to install Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s former chief justice and close ally of the mullahs’ supreme head of government, as its most senior elected official. . The United States has accused Raisi of human rights abuses and imposed sanctions that bar virtually any official relationship with him.
Among the websites seized was Iranian state-owned television station Press TV, which posted a red and white banner on Tuesday afternoon, in English and Persian, warning that it was the subject of criminal investigations and intelligence. The seals of the FBI and the Department of Commerce were also clearly visible.
Websites of Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen and satellite and TV news channels devoted to reporting from the Shiite holy city of Karbala, Iraq, were also seized, according to Iranian media.
A US national security official said the websites, about three dozen in total, were linked to disinformation efforts by Iran and other Tehran-backed groups. A few terrorist organizations have implicated coalition forces stationed abroad, said the official, who requested anonymity to describe the operation before it was announced.
Iranian mission spokesperson to the United Nations Shahrokh Nazemi said the United States was trying to muzzle free speech.
“While rejecting this illegal and intimidating action, which is an attempt to limit freedom of expression, the issue will be dealt with through legal channels,” Nazemi said.
The semi-official Fars news agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, accused the US government on Tuesday of targeting websites belonging to the so-called axis of resistance – how Tehran and its allies describe proxy militia groups in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria that receive training and funding from Iran.
U.S. officials also seized Fars’ website in 2018, when it was registered as a .com domain. The news agency switched to an Iranian domain of .ir and was back online shortly thereafter – a strategy Press TV said on Tuesday it would follow.
Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at Miaan Group and Iranian technology expert, compared the security action to “a game of Whack-a-mole – you close this area, they open another and it there is nothing they can do. . “
“The way to fight disinformation is to inform and strengthen independent journalism, giving people access to the Internet,” Rashidi said.
It was not clear how the security operation could affect the nuclear negotiations, which have been underway in Vienna since April.
Diplomats from world powers trying to revive the deal said after meetings in Vienna on Sunday that talks were progressing, with Russia’s top negotiator Mikhail Ulyanov even predicting a possible breakthrough by mid-July. Negotiators were due to return to their capitals this week to brief their governments on the latest developments.
US and Iranian officials are not negotiating directly, leaving European, Chinese and Russian diplomats to act as intermediaries in the talks, which aim to bring the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. that the United States has left. three years later on the orders of President Donald J. Trump.
President Biden has said joining the nuclear deal is one of his top foreign policy priorities, although his aides largely downplayed any certainty that a deal will be reached.
After the Trump administration withdrew from the deal, it imposed a series of powerful financial sanctions that have deeply damaged the Iranian economy, in a bid to force Tehran to negotiate a new deal that would also curtail its missile programs. ballistics and its proxy militias across the Middle East. .
Instead, Iran has steadily increased its production of enriched uranium, the fuel needed to build a nuclear weapon, well beyond the limits set by the 2015 accord. This has alarmed world powers. and international inspectors who urgently want to bring Iran into compliance – demanding that the United States lift at least some of its sanctions.
Negotiations have largely been suspended on which US sanctions will be lifted. The Biden administration also promised that the deal would serve as a platform for further talks focused on Iran’s missile and militia programs – a proposal Mr Raisi has already rejected.
Some officials believe Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will agree to the nuclear deal ahead of Raisi’s inauguration in early August. This would shield Mr Raisi from any internal reaction to dealing with the United States – especially if the sanctions relief does not immediately strengthen the Iranian economy.