Iran claims arrest of 17 CIA spies; some sentenced to death

Iran’s state media claimed Monday that authorities arrested 17 spies recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on its nuclear and military sites.

The semi-official Fars news agency said some of them have been sentenced to death.

It was not immediately clear if all the alleged spies were Iranian nationals.

The Fars news agency published images that Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said showed the CIA officers who it claimed were in touch with the suspected spies. The ministry said the agents had infiltrated organizations and institutions in Iran’s private sector.

There was no immediate reaction from the CIA, which anyway rarely comments on its national security activities. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday dismissed Iran’s announcement. “The Iranian regime has a long history of lying,” Pompeo said in an interview on Fox News, according to the Reuters news agency.

The arrests occurred over the past few months and come as Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers is under increasing strain amid Washington’s withdrawal a year ago from the accord and renewal of economic sanctions on Iran. Tensions between the U.S., Britain and Iran have spiked in the Persian Gulf region near the Strait of Hormuz.

Soon-to-depart British Prime Minister Theresa May is chairing an emergency security session Monday to discuss how to respond to Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tankerin the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway that is vital to the world’s oil supply.

The “Stena Impero” tanker was seized Friday and is now in a heavily guarded Iranian port. Britain is considering a number of options to raise the pressure on Iran. Officials say military operations are not being considered. The seizure followed a threat by Iran to respond to Britain’s impounding of an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar, in the Mediterranean Sea, that Britain said was on its way to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions. Iran disputes that its tanker was trying to reach Syria, a close ally.

An audio recording released Sunday revealed the tense moments before the “Stena Impero” was seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces rappelling from helicopters onto the ship’s deck. Iran alleges that the tanker was seized after it collided with a fishing boat and then failed to respond to calls from the smaller boat.

State TV in Iran aired a documentary Monday that purported to show a CIA officer recruiting an Iranian man in the United Arab Emirates. It was not clear if the broadcast was connected to the announcement about the alleged spies.

Last month, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry claimed it “penetrated the U.S. safe system in cyberspace” used by the CIA for communicating with American agents, according to Press TV, a state-run network that broadcasts in English.