US President Donald Trump on Monday denied Iran’s claim that it dismantled a CIA spy ring and arrested 17 suspects with alleged links to the US intelligence agency.
“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!” Trump added.
Earlier Monday a top Iranian counter-intelligence official told local reporters that the 17 suspects were all Iranians working in “sensitive centers” and the private sector who had acted independently of each other.
Some have been tried and sentenced to death.
The CIA had no immediate comment, and usually refuses to comment on reports of its covert agents and informants falling under arrest or being killed in the field.
Trump’s denial was extraordinary in that sense, and drew criticism from the intelligence community.
“There’s a reason the government NEVER comments on such claims. The next time an allegation goes unanswered, it will be assumed to be true,” tweeted former National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo 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 US and Iranian accounts of the location of an unmanned US drone the Iranians shot down in June, among other incidents.
“I think everyone should take with a grain of salt everything that the Islamic Republic of Iran asserts today,” he said. “They have 40 years of history of them lying, so we should all be cautious reporting things that the Iranian leadership tells us.”
Pompeo, speaking to The Associated Press over the phone, said that the world is “watching the Iranian regime understand that they’ve got a real challenge, that America and the world understands that they are a rogue regime conducting terror campaigns.”
Iran said it arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly recruited to spy on the country’s nuclear and military sites.
The arrests took place over the past months, and those taken into custody worked on “sensitive sites” in the country’s military and nuclear facilities, an Iranian intelligence official told a press conference in Tehran. He did not elaborate, say how many of them were sentenced to death or when the sentences were handed down.
The announcement comes as Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers is unraveling and tensions have spiked in the Persian Gulf region. The crisis stems from Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the agreement last year and intensify sanctions on the country.
The Iranian official did not give his name but was identified as the director of the counterespionage department of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. It’s rare in Iran for intelligence officials to appear before media, or for any official to give a press conference without identifying himself.
The official claimed that none of the 17, who allegedly had “sophisticated training,” had succeeded in their sabotage missions. Their spying missions included collecting information at the facilities where they worked, carrying out technical and intelligence activities, and transferring and installing monitoring devices, he said.
The official further claimed the CIA had promised US visas or jobs in America and that some of the agents had turned and were now working with his department “against the US.”
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 US Embassy staff in Turkey, India, Zimbabwe and Austria who Iran claims were in touch with the recruited Iranian spies.
Iran occasionally announces the detention of people it says are spying for foreign countries, including the US 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.