UK denies Iran reports of senior UK diplomat, others arrested by Tehran for spying

Iranian media claims accused officials were caught taking soil samples in an area where missile test was being conducted; husband of Austrian cultural attaché also said nabbed

The flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran flies outside its embassy in London, February 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant/ File)
The flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran flies outside its embassy in London, February 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant/ File)

The UK Foreign Ministry denied a claim by Iranian state media on Wednesday that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards detained a British diplomat and other foreign representatives over accusations of spying.

It was not immediately clear if the diplomat and other foreigners were currently or previously detained. Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that the foreigners had been arrested, but did not say when or whether they were currently in custody.

The news outlets said the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, Giles Whitaker, and other foreigners faced “spying” charges after visiting various forbidden areas in the country while the Guard was carrying out ballistic missile tests. The semi-official Fars news agency, believed to be close to the Guard, claimed that Whitaker was expelled from the country after apologizing.

Britain’s Foreign Ministry described the reports that a diplomat was expelled as “completely false.”

The reports come as the British public is transfixed by the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is facing growing pressure to step down after defections from his cabinet.

Iranian media also identified Maciej Walczak, a Polish scientist at Kopernik University in Poland, as one of the accused foreigners. It similarly said he took samples of soil, water and salt from a forbidden area.

Deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Iran, Giles Whitaker. (Courtesy)

According to Reuters, another of the individuals identified by Fars was the husband of Austria’s cultural attaché in Iran.

Kian Sharifi, a reporter and analyst for the BBC, tweeted that the Fars report accused Israel of using foreign nationals to help it make its case against Iran at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

Talks between Iran and world powers to revive a 2015 nuclear deal have been stalled for months. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action gave Iran sanction relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program to prevent it from being weaponized.

After the Trump administration pulled the US out of the JCPOA in 2018, Iran dropped many of its own commitments and ramped up its nuclear program.

Indirect talks to save the deal and bring the US back into it have been stalled for months. Recent talks held in Doha, Qatar, between Iran and the US also failed to make progress.

Iran has in the past arrested dual nationals and those with Western ties, often on espionage charges, and leveraged them as bargaining chips in talks over other issues, such as nuclear negotiations.

On Wednesday, Iran accused a French couple detained in May while on their holiday of allegedly “undermining the security” of the country, the judicial authority said.

French teachers’ union official Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris were arrested in early May, while on Easter vacation sightseeing in the Islamic republic. They are accused by the authorities of seeking to stir labor protests.

The pair stand “accused of association and collusion with the aim of undermining the security of the country,” judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told reporters in Tehran.

Iran said they were accused of “entering the country to sow chaos and destabilize society.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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