Iran says 17 alleged CIA spies arrested and sentenced, though Trump denies claim

/ CBS/AP

Iran claims it has broken up a CIA spy ring

Tehran, Iran — Iran claimed Monday it had arrested 17 Iranian nationals allegedly recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on the country's nuclear and military sites and that some have already been sentenced to death. In a Monday morning tweet, President Trump called the report of the arrests "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!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2019

The alleged arrests took place in the Iranian calendar year ending in March 2019. Those taken into custody worked on "sensitive sites" in the country's military and nuclear facilities, an Iranian intelligence official told a news conference in Tehran.

He didn't say how many of them got the death sentence or when the sentences were handed down. Iranian state television published images Monday it said showed the CIA officers who were in contact with the alleged spies, the Reuters news agency reports.

The CIA didn't offer any immediate comment in response to CBS News inquiries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, declined on Monday to address specifics of the arrests, but said: "The Iranian regime has a long history of lying."

Pompeo dismisses Iran's claim it arrested 17 CIA spies

Pompeo pointed to differences between the U.S. and Iranian accounts of the location of an unmanned U.S. drone the Iranians shot down in June, among other incidents.

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"It's part of the nature of the ayatollah to lie to the world," he said. "I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they've taken."

Pompeo, speaking from Orlando, Florida, told "Fox & Friends" that Iran has for 40 years "behaved in ways that normal nations don't. You don't take other countries' citizens and hold them hostages for political gain. I think this is just further evidence of the outlaw nature of the Iranian regime."

The Iranian announcement came as Iran's nuclear deal with world powers is unraveling and tensions have spiked in the Persian Gulf region. The crisis stems from President Trump's decision to pull the United States out of Tehran's deal last year and intensify sanctions on Iran.

Announcements like Monday's are common in Iran, Reuters notes, and "are often made for domestic consumption." But the timing might indicate Tehran is taking a tougher stand amid the latest tensions, Reuters adds.

The Iranian official didn't give his name but was identified as the director of the counterespionage department of Iran's Intelligence Ministry. Such a procedure is highly unusual in Iran; officials usually identify themselves at news conferences. It is also rare for intelligence officials to appear before the media.

The official claimed none of the 17, who allegedly had "sophisticated training," had succeeded in their sabotage missions. Their spying missions included collecting information at the facilities they worked at, carrying out technical and intelligence activities and transferring and installing monitoring devices, he said.

The official further claimed the CIA had promised those arrested U.S. visas or jobs in America and that some of the agents had turned and were now working with his department "against the U.S."

He also handed out a CD with a video recording of an alleged foreign female spy working for the CIA. The disc also included names of several U.S. Embassy staff in Turkey, India, Zimbabwe and Austria who Iran claims were in touch with the recruited Iranian spies.

Occasionally, Iran announces detentions of spies it says are working for foreign countries, including the U.S. and Israel. In June, Iran said it executed a former staff member of the Defense Ministry who was convicted of spying for the CIA.

In April, Iran said it uncovered 290 CIA spies both inside and outside the country over the past years. It was unclear whether the latest announcement has any connections to those arrests.

First published on July 22, 2019 / 5:27 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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