On July 22, Tehran announced the detention of 17 Iranian citizens for espionage after disrupting an alleged CIA spy ring. The purported spies transmitted intelligence on Iran’s economy, nuclear program, military, and cyber capabilities. The Trump administration immediately denied Tehran's claims.
The alleged spies were arrested between March 2018 and March 2019. Some were given lengthy prison sentences; others were sentenced to death. "Individuals who consciously and deliberately betrayed the country and refused to compensate for the losses have been handed over to the judiciary system, said Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. “Others, who honestly cooperated with the security system and their remorsefulness have been proved, have been managed with intelligence direction against Americans."
Press TV, Iran’s English-language network, broadcast a documentary, entitled “Mole Hunt,” detailing CIA operations in Iran. The U.S. spies were purportedly promised American visas and money. They were run through front companies and websites set up to communicate with each agent.
In the documentary, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said, “Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, in different times, in different arenas and in different platforms has delivered decisive blows to the US intelligence service; the heaviest blows were delivered by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence in 2013 to the US foreign intelligence service beyond Iran’s borders on its cyber platform.” On June 18, Iran also claimed it had disrupted a CIA cyber-espionage network, but it was unclear whether the two busts were related.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Iranian claims. “I would urge everyone who is reading that story waking up to understand that the Iranian regime has a long history of lying. They lied about where they shot down the American UAV. They’ve now lied in the last few days about where they took down this [British] tanker,” Pompeo said. “It’s part of the nature of the ayatollah to lie to the world. I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they’ve taken.” In a tweet, President Trump called the story “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
Iran has made similar claims in the past. The following is a timeline:
November 1979: Two CIA officers were among the 52 hostages when Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy –– William Daugherty, an officer with the Directorate of Operations, and Tom Ahern, the CIA Station Chief in Tehran. The officers were kept in solitary confinement for most of their captivity and were subject to beatings, interrogations, and threats. They were released in 1981 after 444 days.
March 1984: The CIA Station Chief in Lebanon, William F. Buckley, was abducted by a Shiite militia linked to Iran. An Iranian official told the Reagan Administration that Buckley revealed government secrets in interrogations during his 19-month captivity. He was reportedly beaten. He died on June 3, 1985. His remains were returned to the United States in 1991, as part of the final resolution of the broader hostage crisis in Lebanon.
August 1989: President Bush admitted that Iran had discovered and broken up a CIA spy ring. The group operated in Iran and received its commands from a Frankfurt, Germany compound referred to as “Tehfran.” The spies, Iranian nationals recruited from within Iran and neighboring countries, such as Turkey, reportedly provided the United States with tactical intelligence and military operational plans.
March 2007: Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent in Iran on an unauthorized CIA mission, disappeared in Kish Island. His disappearance became public knowledge in April 2007. Repeated U.S. efforts to secure his safe return have failed.
May 2011: Iran claimed to have broken up a ring of 30 CIA spies discovered through a website used by CIA agents to send secret messages. Using Google’s “Advanced Search” functions, Iranian officials detected similar online markers and websites. The United States updated its communications in 2013.
November 2011: The Islamic Republic News Agency reported that the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) had arrested 12 CIA agents. The government claimed that the agents collected information about Iran’s nuclear, military, and security activities. The United States never verified Iran’s claims.
April 2019: Intelligence Minister Seyyed Mahmoud Alavi announced the arrest of 290 alleged CIA agents operating inside Iran and, with the help of allies, outside Iran. The United States never confirmed Iran’s claims.
June 2019: Iran’s Intelligence Ministry claimed to disrupt a cyber-espionage network run by the CIA. It said multiple CIA agents were identified and arrested with the help of foreign allies. The United States never confirmed Tehran’s claims.
July 2019: Iran announced it had arrested 17 CIA spies, all Iranian nationals, between March 2018 and March 2019. It claimed that agents had been spying on military and nuclear activity. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both denied Tehran’s claims.