Iran’s claim on Monday that it had rounded up 17 of its nationals and charged them with spying for the American Central Intelligence Agency is designed to project power amid escalating tensions with the United States and increased economic hardship from punishing American sanctions, experts say.
“There is no doubt Iran has been and remains a top target for U.S. spy agencies. But the sudden Iranian ability to dismantle purported U.S. spy cells is clearly coinciding with heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran in recent months,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
President Trump dismissed Iran’s latest claim as “totally false” and “just more lies and propaganda” — while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they’ve taken.”
An Iranian intelligence official said at a news conference in Tehran that some of the 17 people detained before April had already been sentenced to death. The official said that the spies had been recruited online or at science conferences overseas, and state media released purported photos and business cards of the spies’ alleged handlers.
The reported arrests come as tensions between Iran and the West continue to rise since the United States pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal last year and resumed sanctions on the country. Iran has increased its uranium enrichment capabilities in response to the far-reaching sanctions. The fallout has also played out in the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a British tanker over the weekend.
Monday’s arrests are likely related to Tehran’s push to project an image of control in its standoff with Washington and its allies.
Iran has made similar uncorroborated claims about its efforts in counterespionage this year, often in the wake of political clashes with the United States. In June, weeks after U.S. officials announced they launched two cyberattacks on Iran, the country’s counterintelligence head said the government had “demolished a large network of CIA spies.” It was not clear if Monday’s statement was related to the June 19 announcement.
And in April, around the time the Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, Iran announced it had discovered 290 CIA spies both in Iran and abroad over the course of a few months.
Vatanka said Monday’s announcement could be a bid to emphasize Tehran’s “ability to withstand U.S. pressure,” while also telling an “anxious Iranian public that the regime has handle on things.”
While Tehran’s assertion may be doubted in Washington and European capitals, it is likely to find a more receptive audience at home.
Iran has long touted its capacity to uncover American spy rings in the country. As the New York Times reports, the country recently aired a documentary that purported to show a successful effort to expose and rid the country of the CIA agents working there.
A fictional television series called “Gando” has also injected the fight against undercover U.S. agents in the country’s popular culture. The show follows heroic Iranian intelligence officials as they clash with an American spy posing as a journalist.
Despite the often outlandish and politically motivated espionage charges, Iran’s deep suspicion of U.S. spy operations is founded in historical fact.
In August 1953, the CIA launched a successful covert operation that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in four days. Mossadegh, a beloved figure in Iran, had nationalized the country’s oil industry, which was previously under British control. The British government called on the United States for assistance, prompting the effort that ultimately led to the reinstatement of American-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who remained in power until the 1979 Iranian revolution. The agency only publicly admitted its role in removing Mossadegh in 2013.
CIA agents in Iran also proved integral in discovering one of the country’s secret uranium enrichment facilities in 2009. But the aftermath of this revelation proved devastating to the agency’s operations in Iran.
According to a Yahoo News investigation, Iran was enraged by the discovery and went on the hunt for moles. By 2011, Iranian officials announced they had broken up a ring of 30 CIA informants, a fact U.S. officials later confirmed. Some of the accused informants were executed. The Iranian government was able to find the operatives because of a flaw in the system CIA agents used to communicate with their sources.