ISTANBUL — Iran announced Monday that its intelligence forces have dismantled an elaborate U.S. spy ring operating in the country and arrested its members, but it gave few concrete details to support the claim.
An intelligence official speaking at a news conference in Tehran said his forces arrested 17 Iranians accused of working for the Central Intelligence Agency. He said some of those detained have been sentenced to death.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who formerly served as CIA director, called the reports false in an appearance Monday on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends” program.
“The Iranian regime has a long history of lying,” Pompeo said. “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertions about actions that they’ve taken.”
The Iranian official, identified by state-run media as the head of counterespionage at Iran’s Intelligence Ministry but not named, accused the suspects of agreeing to spy on Iran’s nuclear and military sites.
He said, without providing evidence, that they were recruited online while applying for U.S. visas and on the sidelines of scientific conferences abroad. He said the arrests were made during the Persian calendar year that ended in March.
“The spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centers in the economic, nuclear, military and cyber areas . . . where they collected classified information,” Iranian media quoted the official as saying. He did not give his name or the names of the suspects. It was also unclear which members were sentenced to death and for what alleged activities.
The official claimed that the 17 Iranians were trained by CIA handlers on how to establish encrypted communication channels. Iranian state media published photos of the alleged handlers, but their identities could not immediately be confirmed.
Iran has announced previously that it has identified U.S. spy rings in the country, including a similar network it said it dissolved last month. It was unclear whether the two alleged networks were linked.
The announcement comes amid soaring tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program and its efforts to impede shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.
Since June, Iran has breached some of the limits on its nuclear activities set by a 2015 pact that Tehran struck with world powers. The United States abandoned that agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran in the fall.
On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency — the U.N. body monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities — announced the death of its directorgeneral, Yukiya Amano. The agency’s secretariat, which is based in Vienna, did not say when he died or give a cause of death.
Amano, 72, was a Japanese diplomat and had held the post since 2009. He guided the agency through heated international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and oversaw the implementation of intensified inspections of Tehran’s atomic energy activities.
His death could plunge the IAEA into a period of uncertainty, as tensions with Iran over its nuclear program are again on the rise.
John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.