TEHRAN: Iran arrested 17 suspects and sentenced some to death after dismantling a CIA spy ring, an official said on Monday, as tensions soar between the Islamic republic and arch-enemy the United States.

US President Donald Trump dismissed the report as “totally false”.

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.

“The report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth,” Trump tweeted.

Tehran has been at loggerheads with Washington and its allies since May 2018, when 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 British-flagged tanker in the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Friday, angering the US ally.

Iran said last month it dismantled a network linked to the US Central Intelligence Agency, state news agency IRNA said at the time, saying it was conducted in cooperation with “foreign allies”.

On Monday, the counter-intelligence chief said 17 people suspected of espionage had been identified, all of them Iranians.

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.

The intelligence ministry released a CD with images of what it said were CIA operatives abroad as well as business cards of US diplomats in Austria, Finland, India, Turkey and Zimbabwe allegedly involved in the network.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2019