President Donald Trump on Monday denied Iran’s claim that it dismantled an elaborate U.S. spy ring tasked with monitoring key military sites, dismissing the reports as “totally false” and “more lies and propaganda” from the Iranian government.
Iran said that its intelligence forces identified and arrested 17 Iranians suspected of spying for the CIA and that some of them have been sentenced to death. The announcement comes amid soaring tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program and its efforts to impede shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.
“The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda,” Trump said on Twitter.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who formerly served as CIA director, also called the reports false.
“The Iranian regime has a long history of lying,” Pompeo said in an appearance Monday on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” program. “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertions about actions that they’ve taken.”
At a news conference Monday in Tehran, an Iranian counterintelligence official said the suspects were recruited by CIA agents to monitor vital infrastructure in Iran, including its military and nuclear sites. The official, who was not identified, gave few specifics on the nature of the alleged spying but said the suspects were trained to set up encrypted communication channels and to destroy documents if their cover was blown.
He claimed that the suspects were arrested in cities on the border, where, he said, they had traveled to meet their foreign intelligence handlers. They encountered Iranian counterintelligence officers instead, he said.
He did not give the names of the suspects, and it was unclear which members were sentenced to death and for what alleged activities. He said that the arrests were made during the Persian calendar year ending in March and that those detained were recruited on social media networks, on the sidelines of scientific conferences abroad and while applying for visas at U.S. diplomatic missions.
“The spies were employed in sensitive and vital private-sector centers in the economic, nuclear, military and cyber areas . . . where they collected classified information,” Iranian media quoted the official as saying.
As evidence, state media published what it said were photos, business cards and cellphone numbers of the alleged handlers. Their identities could not immediately be confirmed. The photographs appeared to be taken from social media sites, and Iranian media said some of the business cards included the names of U.S. diplomats at missions in Austria and Zimbabwe. That claim could not be independently verified.
The state broadcaster also aired a short documentary that included footage of people it said were CIA recruiters.
Iran has claimed previously that it identified U.S. spy rings in the country, including a similar network that it said it dissolved last month. It was unclear whether the two alleged networks were linked.
Since June, Iran has breached some of the limits on its nuclear activities set under a 2015 pact that Tehran struck with world powers. The United States abandoned that agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran in the fall.
On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency – the U.N. body monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities – announced the death of its director general, Yukiya Amano. The agency’s secretariat, which is based in Vienna, did not say when he died or give a cause of death.
Amano, 72, was a Japanese diplomat and had held the post since 2009. He guided the agency through the heated international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and oversaw the implementation of intensified inspections of Tehran’s atomic energy activities.
His death could plunge the IAEA into a period of uncertainty, as tensions with Iran over its nuclear program are again on the rise.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham