Tehran (AFP) - Iran arrested 17 suspects and sentenced some to death after dismantling a CIA spy ring, an official said Monday, as tensions soar between the Islamic republic and arch-enemy the United States.
Security agencies "successfully dismantled a (CIA) spy network," the head of counter-intelligence at the Iranian intelligence ministry, whose identity was not revealed, told reporters in Tehran.
"Those who deliberately betrayed the country were handed to the judiciary... some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment."
The suspects were arrested between March 2018 and March 2019.
Tehran has been at loggerheads with Washington and its allies since May 2018, when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark 2015 deal putting curbs on Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
The US administration reimposed biting sanctions on Iran, which retaliated by increasing its enrichment of uranium beyond limits set in the nuclear accord.
Trump called off air strikes against Iran at the last minute in June after the Islamic republic downed a US drone, one of a string of incidents including attacks on tankers in the Gulf.
The tensions have escalated since British authorities seized an Iranian oil tanker on July 4 on suspicions it was shipping oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions.
In what was seen by Britain as a tit-for-tat move, Iran's Revolutionary Guards seized a UK-flagged tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Friday, angering the US ally.
- CIA 'visa trap' -
Iran said last month that it dismantled a spy network linked to the CIA.
"Following clues in the American intelligence services, we recently found the new recruits Americans had hired and dismantled a new network," state news agency IRNA reported at the time, quoting an intelligence ministry official.
IRNA said Iran had carried out the operation in cooperation with "foreign allies", without naming any state.
At Monday's news conference, the Iranian counter-intelligence chief said 17 people suspected of espionage had been identified, all of them Iranians who had acted independently of each other.
The suspects had been "employed at sensitive and crucial centres and also the private sector related to them, working as contractors or consultants," said the official.
Some of them had been recruited by falling into a "visa trap" set by the US Central Intelligence Agency for Iranians seeking to travel to the United States.
"Some were approached when they were applying for a visa, while others had visas from before and were pressured by the CIA in order to renew them," said the official.
Their mission was to collect classified information and carry out "technical and intelligence operations at important and sensitive centres using advanced equipment," he said.
"All of the network's members, all the 17 people, were trained by CIA officers on how to set up safe communications."
- 'Major defeat' -
The top security official alleged the CIA used special stone-like containers to send communications tools and identity documents to its network.
"The forgery was clumsy, showing that it was done by the CIA itself," he said, adding that this "proves" it was government-sanctioned.
"After they were discovered, CIA officers ordered the spies to destroy all the documents," he added.
The official said the CIA had informed the suspects to go to "emergency exits" in cities near the border in case they felt they were in danger.
"Of course, they instead met the intelligence ministry's agents and were arrested."
He hailed the operation as a "second major defeat of the CIA" following a similar one five years earlier.
"They will naturally try to restore and rebuild themselves, and of course we are always vigilant."