Seventeen Iranian nationals allegedly recruited by the CIA to spy on Iran’s nuclear and military sites have been arrested, Tehran said on Monday, adding that some of them had already been sentenced to death.
The arrests took place over the past months and those taken into custody worked on “sensitive sites” in the country’s military and nuclear facilities, an Iranian intelligence official told a press conference in Tehran.
He did not say how many of them had received the death sentence or say when the sentences were handed down.
The announcement comes as Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers is unraveling and tensions have risen in the Persian Gulf region. The crisis stems from the decision by the US president, Donald Trump, to pull the United States out of the deal last year and intensify sanction on the countryDonald Trump flatly rejected the Iranian claim.
“The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false,” he tweeted. “Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda (like their shot down drone) put out by a Religious Regime that is Badly Failing and has no idea what to do. Their Economy is dead, and will get much worse. Iran is a total mess!”
On Friday Tehran denied a claim by Trump that a US warship had brought down one of its drones. Last month Iran shot down a US drone.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, also dismissed Iran’s announcement. “The Iranian regime has a long history of lying,” Pompeo said on Monday in an interview on Fox News.
The Iranian official who made the claim did not give his name but was identified as the director of the counterespionage department of Iran’s intelligence ministry. Such a procedure is highly unusual in Iran; officials usually identify themselves at press conferences. It is also rare for intelligence officials to appear before the media.
The official claimed that none of the 17, who allegedly had “sophisticated training”, had succeeded in their sabotage missions. Their spying missions included collecting information at the facilities they worked at, carrying out technical and intelligence activities and transferring and installing monitoring devices, he said.
The official further claimed the CIA had promised those arrested US visas or jobs in America and that some of the agents had turned and were now working with his department “against the US”.
He also handed out a CD with a video recording of an alleged foreign female spy working for the CIA. The disc also included names of several US embassy staff in Turkey, India, Zimbabwe and Austria who Iran claims were in touch with the recruited Iranian spies.
There was no immediate comment from Washington.
Occasionally, Iran announces detentions of spies it says are working for foreign countries, including the US and Israel. In June, Iran said it executed a former staff member of the defence ministry who was convicted of spying for the CIA.
In April, Iran said it had uncovered 290 CIA spies both inside and outside the country over recent years.
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