TEHRAN, Iran — Iran claimed Monday that it had smashed a CIA spy ring on its soil, saying some of the 17 Iranian nationals netted by authorities had already been sentenced to death.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, in an interview with Fox News, dismissed the claims, insisting that “the Iranian regime has a long history of lying.”
“It’s part of the nature of the ayatollah to lie to the world,” Pompeo said in reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion of actions they have taken.”
President Donald Trump weighed in with a tweet, calling the claim “totally false.”
“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!”
Speaking to dozens of journalists assembled in the underground press club of Iran’s Ministry of Culture, an Iranian counterintelligence official said the 17 detained Iranian nationals had been working in a number of key private-sector institutions in “economic, nuclear, infrastructure, military and cyber fields.”
“We have intelligence dominance over the CIA’s espionage activities in Iran,” said the official, who identified himself as “director-general of the intelligence ministry’s counter-espionage department” but declined to give his name.
An accompanying presentation provided to journalists showed business cards for a number of U.S. diplomats based in Turkey, Austria, Zimbabwe and elsewhere who Iranian officials said recruited the spies when they were applying for U.S. visas.
“Some of the Iranian citizens get into the ‘visa trap’ and they are asked to become spies if they want to receive visas,” the official said.
Others, he said, were framed by the CIA when they wanted to “maintain or extend their visas.” CIA officers also approached Iranian citizens through shell companies or “on the sidelines of scientific conferences in European, African and Asian countries,” he said.
The spies were foiled through inter-service cooperation with Iran’s intelligence allies, the official said. Countries whose intelligence services allowed the CIA to recruit on their soil would “be held responsible,” he warned.
The presentation also featured images, said to be of CIA operatives, taken from the suspected spies’ phones. The spies were enticed, said the official, with promises of immigration to the U.S. as well as jobs and money once there.
In March, Mahmoud Alavi, Iran’s intelligence minister, said in an interview with the Iranian news agency Tasnim that authorities had apprehended 290 suspected spies. Iranian intelligence services routinely claim to have captured spies working for the United States or Israel.
Monday’s assertions come amid tensions between Tehran and Washington, as well as an Iranian standoff with Britain over tit-for-tat seizures of oil tankers at sea.
The alleged spy bust, the official said, was “another global failure for the CIA.”
“Considering that CIA has been crippled, it will be natural that this service tries to restore and rebuild itself, and of course Iranian intelligence community will always be wakeful and vigilant,” he said.
(Mostaghim is a special correspondent.)