Tehran, Iran — Iran claimed Monday it has arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on the country’s nuclear and military sites, and that some have already been sentenced to death. In a Monday morning tweet, President Trump called the report of the arrests “totally false.”
The alleged arrests took place in the Iranian calendar year ending in March 2019 and those taken into custody worked on “sensitive sites” in the country’s military and nuclear facilities, an Iranian intelligence official told a news conference in Tehran.
He didn’t say how many of them got the death sentence or when the sentences were handed down. Iranian state television published images Monday it said showed the CIA officers who were in contact with the alleged spies, the Reuters news agency reports.
The CIA didn’t offer any immediate comment in response to CBS News inquiries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, declined on Monday to address specifics of the arrests, but said: “The Iranian regime has a long history of lying.”
Pompeo pointed to differences between the U.S. and Iranian accounts of the location of an unmanned U.S. drone the Iranians shot down in June, among other incidents.
The Iranian announcement came as Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers is unraveling and tensions have spiked in the Persian Gulf region. The crisis stems from President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of Tehran’s deal last year and intensify sanctions on Iran.
Announcements like Monday’s are common in Iran, Reuters notes, and “are often made for domestic consumption.” But the timing might indicate Tehran is taking a tougher stand amid the latest tensions, Reuters adds.
The Iranian official didn’t give his name but was identified as the director of the counterespionage department of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. Such a procedure is highly unusual in Iran; officials usually identify themselves at news conferences. It is also rare for intelligence officials to appear before the media.
The official claimed none of the 17, who allegedly had “sophisticated training,” had succeeded in their sabotage missions. Their spying missions included collecting information at the facilities they worked at, carrying out technical and intelligence activities and transferring and installing monitoring devices, he said.
The official further claimed the CIA had promised those arrested U.S. visas or jobs in America and that some of the agents had turned and were now working with his department “against the U.S.”
He also handed out a CD with a video recording of an alleged foreign female spy working for the CIA. The disc also included names of several U.S. Embassy staff in Turkey, India, Zimbabwe and Austria who Iran claims were in touch with the recruited Iranian spies.
Occasionally, Iran announces detentions of spies it says are working for foreign countries, including the U.S. 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. It was unclear whether the latest announcement has any connections to those arrests.
*see full story by CBS News