Iran says it has sentenced 'CIA spies' to death as Gulf tensions mount

Josie Ensor
Iranian Fars news agency shows pictures of the detained crew of British-flagged Stena Impero by Revolutionary Guards in the Persian Gulf - Fars

Iran claimed yesterday that it had captured 17 people accused of spying for the CIA and sentenced several of them to death, in a sign Tehran was hardening its position in its standoff with Western powers.

Those taken into custody worked on “sensitive sites” in the country’s military and nuclear facilities and as contractors in the private sector, an Iranian intelligence official told a press conference in Tehran.

The head of counter-intelligence at the Iranian intelligence ministry, whose identity was not revealed, did not say how many of them had received the death sentence or when the sentences were handed down. 

Such arrests of nationals accused of spying for foreign government are not unusual in Iran - which said in April it had uncovered 290 US spies in recent years - but the timing has raised concerns.

The report of Iran capturing CIA spies is 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. Their Economy is dead, and will get much worse. Iran is a total mess!" tweeted President Donald Trump in response to the reports.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, dismissed Iran’s announcement, saying. “The Iranian regime has a long history of lying.” 

Seventeen suspects had been identified, all of them Iranians who were said to have acted independently of each other and had been arrested in the 12 months up to March this year. 

Some of them had 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," said the counter-intelligence chief.

An Iranian television documentary aired on Monday purported to show a CIA officer recruiting an Iranian man in the United Arab Emirates.

Semi-official Fars news agency released parts of the footage from the documentary, including what it said were the picture of the alleged American operatives who recruited the spies and the business cards of US State Department officials. 

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of imprisoned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, on a hunger strike outside the Iranian Embassy in London Credit: REX

The announcement came as British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, detained in Tehran on espionage charges, was transferred back to an Iranian prison from a hospital psychiatric ward, where she had been held incommunicado for a week.

Richard Ratcliffe told the Telegraph Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s mother and daughter Gabriella were allowed to visit her in Evin prison on Sunday, and that he had managed to speak to her over the phone on Monday morning for a few minutes, which was "good news".

He had expressed fears the escalating tensions between the two countries would further harm his wife’s case.