Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters at a press conference on Monday that the woman had been “in charge of the Iran desk” of the British Council, a cultural organisation, and confessed to “cooperating” with UK intelligence officials.
He did not identify the suspect, but said she had been sentenced recently after she “made a straightforward confession”.
Esmaili added that the suspect, whom he alleged had been tasked with drawing up and managing cultural “infiltration” projects, had been arrested by Iranian intelligence and security agencies “more than a year ago”.
A London-based British Council employee, Aras Amiri, was arrested in Iran in 2018.
A friend of the sentenced woman identified her as Aras Amiri to the Reuters news agency, while British newspaper The Telegraph reported that one of Amiri’s family members confirmed she was the person sentenced.
Monday’s announcement prompted an immediate response from London, with the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) saying it was “very concerned” by the Iranian move.
“We have not been able to confirm any further details at this stage and are urgently seeking further information,” an FCO spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
‘We do not work in Iran’
The British Council is a cultural and educational organisation with branches around the world. Funding from the UK’s foreign office makes up about 15 percent of its overall income.
According to the organisation’s website, it is not “physically present” in Iran.
Ciaran Devane, the British Council’s chief executive, said the organisation had not yet “been able to confirm” whether the unnamed woman cited by Esmaili was an employee.
“Our colleague who was detained last year is not head of ‘the Iran desk’, they worked in the UK in a junior role to support and showcase the Iranian contemporary art scene to UK audiences,” Devane said in a statement, without naming the colleague cited.
“The British Council does not have offices or representatives in Iran, and we do not do any work in Iran,” he added.
Iranian authorities shut down the British Council more than a decade ago for what Esmaili described as “illegal activities”.
Esmaili said that during her confession, the suspect described how she had been recruited, telling investigators about her instructions from the “English security agency”.
The spokesman added that she was “an Iranian student who wanted to live and work in the UK”, was hired by the British Council and “repeatedly travelled to Iran under aliases… and made connections with artistic and theatre groups”.
Concerns over ‘infiltration’
Arrests of Iranians accused of espionage has increased since the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last year there had been “infiltration” by Western agents in the country.
The UK is currently engaged in a long-running effort to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual British-Iranian national serving a five-year sentence in the Islamic Republic for alleged espionage. Iran does not recognise dual nationality.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 41-year-old Thomson Reuters Foundation employee, was jailed in July 2016, three months after her initial arrest at Tehran airport as she was heading back to Britain.
She has frequently denied the sedition charge levelled against her, insisting she was in the country on a family visit with her daughter.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Iran has arrested at least 14 dual or foreign nationals since 2014, many of whom HRW said had been charged by courts of “cooperating with a ‘hostile state'” without sufficient evidence.
“This targeted campaign against foreign and dual nationals sends a threatening message to Iranian expatriates and foreigners interested in working in Iran, that their knowledge and expertise are a liability if they visit the country,” HRW’s Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whiston said in September 2018.
“Iran’s security apparatus has apparently made the despicable decision to use these individuals as bargaining chips to resolve diplomatic disputes,” she added.