Iran captured 17 spies working for the US intelligence agency, the CIA, and some have been sentenced to death, an Iranian official said on Monday, a claim Washington denied.
Security agencies “successfully dismantled a [CIA] spy network,” the head of counterintelligence at the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, whose identity was not revealed, told reporters in Tehran.
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“Those who deliberately betrayed the country were handed to the judiciary,” he said. “Some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment.”
US President Donald Trump denied the claim later on Monday, calling it “totally false”.
“The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false,” Trump 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,” he added.
The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence announcement comes after months of soaring tensions between Iran and the United States, stemming from Washington’s decision to exit the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose biting economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The intelligence official claimed that none of the 17, who allegedly had “sophisticated training”, had succeeded in their sabotage missions.
Their missions included collecting information at the facilities they worked at, carrying out technical and intelligence activities and transferring and installing monitoring devices, he said.
Some of them had reportedly been recruited by falling into a “visa trap” set by the CIA for Iranians seeking to travel to the US.
“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,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said Iranian authorities also released a documentary which they said “shows to which extent these people went to try and exchange information with their CIA operatives outside the country”.
“The authorities said that this has been the largest uncovering of a network of spies inside the country for many years,” she added.
“The government believes it is a huge victory for them as they put an end to these activities for now.”
The documentary, aired on state television on Monday, purported to show a CIA officer recruiting an Iranian man in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“Because there are so many intelligence officers in Dubai. It is very dangerous… Iranian intelligence,” a woman was shown telling an Iranian in the documentary.
State-run IRNA news agency said Iran had carried out the operation in cooperation with “foreign allies”, without naming any particular states.
Occasionally, Iran announces the detention 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 Ministry of Defense 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.