Trump made the comments on Monday while talking to reporters at the White House amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Western powers. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence said earlier on Monday it had captured 17 US spies and sentenced some to death, but Trump denied the reports.
Tensions have escalated since last year when Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and reimposed sanctions on the country. Trump said the agreement did not go far enough.
Since then, Trump has publicly said he was open to talks with Iranian leaders over the nuclear deal and other security issues, but Tehran has said it is not open to negotiations while the sanctions remain in place.
Trump’s comments came after Iranian state television published images it said showed CIA officers who had been in touch with the suspected spies. The Ministry of Intelligence said the 17 spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019. Some had been sentenced to death, according to another report.
Such announcements are usual in Iran and are often made for domestic consumption. But the timing suggested a hardening of the Iranian position as the Gulf crisis escalates.
Trump called the announcement “totally false” and said there was “zero truth” to it.
He tweeted: “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!”
Iran’s announcement comes hours before the United Kingdom is expected to unveil its response to Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker, a move that has escalated a three-month confrontation that nearly drew the US and Iran into outright military conflict.
In London, Prime Minister Theresa May led a meeting of her government’s COBRA emergency committee to respond to Friday’s capture of the Stena Impero tanker by Iranian commandoes who abseiled onto its deck from helicopters in the Strait of Hormuz.
“The ship was seized under false and illegal pretences and the Iranians should release it and its crew immediately,” May’s spokesman told reporters on Monday.
“We do not seek confrontation with Iran but it is unacceptable and highly escalatory to seize a ship going about legitimate business through internationally recognised shipping lanes,” he added.
British ministers were expected to unveil their plans in a speech to parliament later on Monday.
Regional experts say London has few good options to exert leverage over Iran at a time when Washington has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning Iran’s global oil exports.
But the incident may prompt Britain and other countries to be more forthcoming as Washington has asked its reluctant allies to provide more ships to help secure the Gulf.
Asked on Fox News about any possible US role over the seized tanker, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said pointedly: “The responsibility … falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships.”
The developments come after months of heightened tensions following Washington’s decision in May to close loopholes in sanctions, effectively barring all countries from buying Iranian oil.
Since then, Iran has stepped up its nuclear activity beyond limits in the deal and Washington has accused Tehran of attacking ships in the Gulf, allegations Iran denies.
In June, after Iran shot down a US drone, Trump ordered retaliatory air attacks, only to abort them at the last minute.
Last week, the US said it had shot down an Iranian drone, which Tehran denied.
Washington’s major European allies Britain, France and Germany opposed Trump’s decision to quit the nuclear deal and have tried to remain neutral. But Britain was drawn more directly into the confrontation on July 4 when its Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar, accused of violating European sanctions on Syria.
Iran repeatedly threatened to retaliate for that incident and has made little secret that its capture of the Stena Impero two weeks later was intended as a retaliatory move.
As Britain weighed its next step, a recording emerged on Sunday of Britain’s only warship in the Gulf radioing in vain to try to persuade Iranian forces not to board Stena Impero. That showed the difficulty a mid-sized naval power would have in protecting ships in the strait between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, the most important waterway of the global oil trade.
The US, which has an aircraft carrier and several other warships in the area as part of its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, has been trying to enlist other countries to join an international task force to protect shipping.
The US has been struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.