A fresh episode emerged in the intensifying tensions between Tehran and Washington after a top Iranian intelligence official declared a moment of triumph from a "severe blow" to US intelligence.
At a rare press conference in Tehran July 22, an official described as the chief of the counterespionage department of Iran's Intelligence Ministry announced that 17 Iranian individuals had been arrested for collaborating with the CIA. A number of those "spies" have been convicted of "spreading corruption on earth," a charge punishable by execution under the Islamic Republic's penal code.
The unnamed intelligence official noted that the convicts operated as isolated cells, each working closely with separate CIA intelligence officers, who lured them into espionage on the sidelines of academic conferences across Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as during US visa application interviews in American missions with promises of visa facilitation and cash, among other incentives. The officer noted that those people were tasked with "infiltrating" key military and nuclear facilities under the guise of "advisers and contractors." He said that none held key decision-making positions.
"Infiltration" has been a recurring motif in speeches by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The term has come to mean a Western plot to erode the Iranian establishment from within.
Within hours of the announcement, Iran's state TV aired an 18-minute documentary of the hunt, with reenactments combined with what was claimed to be authentic footage of meetings and wiretapped conversations between the accused spies and their American handlers in places as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Azerbaijan, the UAE and Thailand.
In one case, a woman speaking halting Persian with an American accent appeared to be one of those handlers. "There are too many Iranian intelligence officers around in Dubai. They are extremely dangerous," she complains, caught on what appears to be a hidden camera set by an Iranian counterintelligence officer.
While the Iranian convicts are shown repenting in distorted voices, their faces blurred, the documentary is more than explicit about the American agents, showing pictures from their personal lives as well as copies of their "forged" business cards, some of them bearing consular postings.
Iran's hard-line daily Kayhan, which maintains close links to Khamenei's office, boasted about the operation as counterintelligence "muscle flexing" and "yet another slap in America's face … that forced Trump into uttering nonsense." Kayhan was referencing the US president's immediate dismissal in a tweet of the announcement as propaganda by a "Religious Regime that is Badly Failing and has no idea what to do." Equally downplaying Trump's reaction, Tasnim News Agency — affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — called his reaction a "hysterical response."
Iran's hard-liners took the announcement as another in what they hail as a series of Iranian successes against the United States, most notably the IRGC's downing of an American drone over the Gulf of Oman last month.
The Intelligence Ministry's documentary portrays the CIA's purported espionage scheme against the Islamic Republic within the prism of a wider agenda of regime change advanced in the Oval Office by such Iran hawks as national security adviser John Bolton.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has long been warning that such politicians are luring Trump into a war with Iran, one that will bring about unpredictable consequences in the Persian Gulf and the greater world.
As Iran and the United Kingdom are embroiled in a conflict over oil tankers they seized from one another, Zarif warned the incoming British government to beware of Bolton, who "is turning his venom against the UK in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire." The top Iranian diplomat stressed the importance of "prudence and foresight" as the way to resist "such ploys."
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