Iran has captured 17 spies working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and some have been sentenced to death, Iranian media reported on Monday, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.
State television quoted the Intelligence Ministry as saying it had broken up a CIA spying ring and captured 17 suspects. None of the spies were in contact with each other and all of those arrested were Iranian citizens, according to Fars.
The announcement comes after three months of spiraling confrontation with the West that began when new, tighter US sanctions took effect at the start of May, Reuters reported. Last week, Iran captured a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz after Britain's Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar in July 4.
"The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centers in the economic, nuclear, infrastructural, military and cyber areas... where they collected classified information," said a ministry statement read on state television.
The CIA recruited some of the spies by offering to aid them with the US visa application process and promises of permanent residence permits, according to Fars. The Iranian nationals were also assured of their safety in Iran and abroad.
Some of the recruitment was conducted by CIA officers on the sidelines of scientific conferences in Europe, Africa and Asia. The agency also began correspondence with some of the Iranian nationals through social networks and email.
As part of the espionage operation, the CIA established fake companies to communicate with the Iranian nationals on the pretext of hiring Iranian experts or supplying equipment from abroad.
The spies established secure communications with the CIA with the help of intelligence tools and complex technical equipment from the agency.
Espionage equipment and money were transported into the country inside stones with spyware embedded in them. Agents would then retrieve the stones from various areas in cities, parks and mountain areas and remove the equipment by breaking the stones.
The agents were also provided with fake identity documents.
The CIA had developed an emergency escape plan for the spies, in which the agents would meet CIA officers at a predetermined place in a border town and then exit the country with the agent. Instead, the agents were captured by Iranian officials when they arrived at the predetermined escape point, according to Fars.
Iran's Intelligence Ministry stated that although the spies had undergone training to withstand interrogation, all the members of the spy network ended up confessing to communicating with the CIA. Fars also reported that information from the spies was directed against the US.
The Iranian Intelligence Ministry will provide information uncovered regarding this spy ring to intelligence services in other countries, in order to further thwart CIA espionage attempts. This will most likely affect other European and Asian countries as well, according to Fars.
Iranian state media reported that the arrests were made in the Iranian calendar year ending in March 2019, according to Reuters.
The Iranian judiciary issued sentences for the spies a few days ago, according to Fars. Some were sentenced to death while others received long-term prison sentences. Those arrested were professionals and experts in Iran, but did not serve any official roles.
According to the ministry, the spy network failed to sabotage or disrupt activities in the Islamic republic.
It was not immediately clear if the arrests were linked to the case where Iran said in June that it had exposed a large cyber espionage network it alleged was run by the CIA, and that several US spies had been arrested in different countries as a result of this action, according to Reuters.