WASHINGTON (CN) – The Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced Monday it had captured 17 Iranian citizens it believes were trained by America’s CIA. President Donald Trump took to Twitter hours later to claim the reports were false.
“The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth,” Trump tweeted. “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!”
Speaking at a press conference in Tehran, the director of Iran’s counterespionage department said that some of the captured individuals have already been sentenced to death. Reports from the country’s state television network say the individuals were working at sensitive sites in the country’s nuclear-production facilities. It is unclear what will happen to the other suspected spies Iran has imprisoned.
The Iranian official told reporters that the spying missions of the arrested individuals included collecting information at the facilities, carrying out technical and intelligence activities and even installing monitoring devices. He also handed out a disk with a video recording of an alleged foreign female spy working for the CIA. It 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, according to a report by the Associated Press.
The official further claimed the CIA had promised the spies 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.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while not directly addressing the allegations Monday, told Fox News on Monday the “Iranian regime has a long history of lying.” No other release has been issued from the State Department regarding the arrests.
Tangentially this morning, Pompeo announced Monday that the Chinese shipping company Zhuhai Zhenrong Ltd. and its chief executive would face sanctions for violating U.S. trade restrictions on Iran. The sanctions look to starve the Iranian economy of its biggest economical driver: oil.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have heightened since the president pulled out of a joint nuclear deal with the country in May. In cables leaked by a United Kingdom newspaper between U.K. Ambassador Kim Darroch and his government, the official said the dissolution of the deal was, “an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons” because the pact “was Obama’s deal.” The president has since rebuked the ambassador on Twitter.
In the recent months, these tensions have been stoked with the downing by American troops of an Iranian drone in the Straight of Hormuz last Thursday. The drone had come within 3,000 feet of the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, and was destroyed immediately after being directed to alter its course several times.
Additionally, earlier that day, Iranian officials admitted they had seized a Panamanian tanker and its crew.
“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters,” Trump said at the time of the drone destruction. “The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce.”
Iranian officials refuted this claim. “We have not lost any drone in the Straight of Hormuz nor anywhere else,” the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi tweeted on July 18. “I am worried that USS Boxer has shot down their own UAS by mistake!”
Iran meanwhile shot down an American drone in June for purportedly flying over Iranian air space. Two U.S. officials later told Associated Press reporters the drone had been downed in the Straight of Hormuz — the differences in reports were never reconciled.
Though U.S. officials prepared to respond at the time with a strike against Iran, Trump said he called back the attack 10 minutes before it was to be carried out due to the amount of potential civilian casualties. The president said the strike and response would not have been proportionate, but noted the move was a temporary one.
“I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night,” Trump tweeted in June.
The Interest Section of the Islamic Republican of Iran at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to emails for comment.