JEDDAH: US leaders on Monday dismissed a claim by Tehran that it had smashed a CIA spy network operating in Iran.
Donald Trump said the Iranian claim was “totally false, 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,” the US president said. “Their economy is dead, and will get much worse. Iran is a total mess.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also rejected the claim by Tehran. “The Iranian regime has a long history of lying,” he said.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry claimed on Monday that 17 CIA spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019. “Some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment,” it said.
Those arrested had been “employed at sensitive and crucial centers, working as contractors or consultants,” a ministry official said. Their mission was to collect classified information.
Some of the “spies” were recruited by falling into a visa trap set by the CIA for Iranians seeking to travel to the US, the ministry said. “Some were approached when they were applying for a visa, while others had visas from before and were pressured by the CIA in order to renew them.”
Others were “lured” by promises of cash, high-paying jobs and even medical services for seriously ill family members.
Boasts about smashing spy networks are not unusual in Iran, and are usually for domestic consumption. But analysts believe the timing suggests a hardening of the Iranian position after their seizure last week of a British tanker in the Gulf.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May chaired a meeting of the COBRA security emergency committee on Monday to calibrate the British response. Later Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament that Britain was proposing a European-led maritime protection mission in the Gulf to protect commercial vessels from Iran’s “state piracy,” and had been in talks with a number of countries in the past 48 hours.
The UK will ask British-flagged ships to give notice of plans to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, Hunt said. “We will then advise them as to the safest way to transit, which may involve traveling in convoy.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, declined on Monday to address specifics of the arrests. But he added that “the Iranian regime has a long history of lying.”
Pompeo pointed to differences between the US and Iranian accounts of the location of an unmanned US drone the Iranians shot down in June, among other incidents.
“I think everyone should take with a grain of salt everything that the Islamic Republic of Iran asserts today,” he said. “They have 40 years of history of them lying, so we should all be cautious reporting things that the Iranian leadership tells us.”
Pompeo, speaking to The Associated Press over the phone, said that the world is “watching the Iranian regime understand that they’ve got a real challenge, that America and the world understands that they are a rogue regime conducting terror campaigns.”
Iran occasionally announces the detention of people it says are spying for foreign countries, including the US and Israel. In June, Iran said it executed a former staff member of the Defense Ministry who was convicted of spying for the CIA.
In April, Iran said it uncovered 290 CIA spies both inside and outside the country over the past years.