What To Make of DOJ’s Seizure of Iranian Websites

On June 22, the US Department of Justice seized 33 websites connected to Iran and allied militias in the Arab World. Despite headlines claiming disinformation as a motivation, the web hosts had violated US law by conducting business with entities from the “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN) list. The United States added the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the parent of many of the seized websites, to the SDN list in 2013. The seizures forced a relocation of hosts for Iran’s PressTV and Al-Alam, one of Iran’s Arabic language channels, as well as websites belonging to the Iranian-aligned militias Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, in Yemen. The websites seized had little impact in the information environment. Rather the seizure represents the application of longstanding, but often flouted, laws preventing Americans from aiding authoritarians in waging information warfare.

Omelas has written extensively on Iran’s struggles to adapt to the global information environment. Iran’s information warfare strategy has been scattershot, hampered by political infighting, declining funding, and an allocation of resources based more on personal ambition than achieving strategic objectives. From our earlier report on Iran’s role in the 2020 US election:

“VK is the top social network in Farsi-speaking Tajikistan. Iran’s only presence on VK, however, is not in Farsi but in Spanish, a language used neither in Iran nor on VK. The Iranian government, the world’s largest producer of Farsi-language content, has no outlets aimed at a Tajik audience on any social network.”

PressTV, the most prominent Iranian website in the takedown, exemplifies Iran’s problems in the information space. PressTV uses more of a tabloid style compared to Fars News Agency, which bills itself as a more serious newswire. While creating separate outlets for newswires and tabloids is standard, Iran is distinct in having duplicates in each category–Mehr News fills the same role as PressTV while Tasnim and the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) fill the same role as Fars News. Their creation reflects no coherent strategy to target multiple audiences but rather internal power struggles between the government and the Islamic Ideology Dissemination Organization, which reports directly to the Supreme Leader.

PressTV has generated a moderate following: 288k followers on YouTube, 260k followers on Twitter, 217k followers on Facebook, and 156k followers on Instagram. None of these follower counts are negligible, per se, but none large enough to influence broader national conversations. The midsize followings are compounded by PressTV’s struggles to engage its audience, averaging only 15 engagements (likes, shares, comments, etc.) per post. These followings were not jeopardized by the seizure of PressTV’s .com or .tv domains.

Past underperformance is no guarantee of future failure. IRIB, PressTV’s parent, plays a crucial role in crushing dissent within Iran and US sanctions, applied eight years ago, stopped American business from supporting those ends. Although the seizure of PressTV’s domains is unlikely to affect Iran’s influence in the English-speaking world, already dismal for the resources spent, the uniform application of the law in combatting information warfare should be applauded.

Omelas stops the weaponization of the Internet by malicious actors