No truth at all? Not even a smidgen? Earlier today, Iran claimed to have broken up a CIA spy ring in their country back in March, arresting 17 Iranians in a major sweep. According to the Iranians, they have already tried some and sentenced them to death, but with tensions rising apparently felt that this was an appropriate time to spike a football:
Iran said it broke up a CIA spy ring and arrested 17 Iranians recruited to collect information on the country's nuclear and military sites. It comes as Britain convenes an emergency meeting over Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz. pic.twitter.com/nHygpTKLCF
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) July 22, 2019
Iran said Monday it has 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. The arrests took place in the Iranian calendar year ending in March 2019 and 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.
It’s always best to take declarations from Tehran with a Lot’s Wife-sized grain of salt. The timing of this is self-serving too, coming during an economy on its way to crashing as the mullahs seem to be playing for an outright war in the Persian Gulf. The claim itself, however, isn’t necessarily outrageous; after all, it’s almost beyond imagination that the CIA hasn’t at least tried to build a spy network there. If any hot spot in the world called for highly aggressive intelligence recruitment by the CIA, Iran would be it.
Nevertheless, Trump found the claim provocative enough to deny it on Twitter:
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
He may well be right — Trump has access to more intel than any of us — but what purpose does this serve? He’s not battling the mullahs in the polls, after all. If the IRGC really did penetrate a CIA ring, that would hardly be Trump’s fault either. Under the circumstances, it might be best to keep silent and keep the mullahs guessing as to whether they really got the CIA’s sources, if in fact they did anything at all.
Besides, the Iranians themselves have heard these claims before, and are not likely terribly convinced by them:
Iran has in the past arrested and executed alleged spies working for foreign powers, including the U.S. state-linked media in June, citing the country’s military, reported that Iran had executed a defense ministry contractor accused of spying for the CIA. Last year, Iran’s intelligence minister said “dozens of spies” had been arrested in a crackdown on espionage.
Iranian authorities have a history of using clampdowns on foreign agents, including dual citizens, to boost its claims that enemies are trying to infiltrate it. Some cases can be used for years in state propaganda. Last month, Iranian state TV launched a three-part TV-series glorifying the arrest of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian who was detained in 2014 and held for more than 500 days on charges of espionage.
This is likely an attempt to distract Iranians from the fact that the mullahs are provoking a fight not just with the Great Satan but also with the UK. That’s another good reason not to respond to thinly sourced claims coming out of Tehran. Right now Theresa May is chairing a “Cobra meeting” on their next response to Iran’s latest tanker seizure:
Prime Minister Theresa May has been chairing the government’s emergency committee Cobra to receive updates and discuss security in the area.
Her official spokesman described the seizure of the ship as “unacceptable and highly escalatory”.
The foreign secretary is expected to set out next steps to MPs later.
It comes amid reports ministers are considering freezing Iranian assets.
If and when that happens, the Iranian economy’s decline will take a sharper drop, and that won’t be the fault of the US. May is also considering an alliance specifically to confront Iranian military in the region in order to protect shipping, a point which we should have reached a couple of weeks ago but will send a very tough message to Tehran — and to Moscow, where Vladimir Putin has been miiiiiiighty quiet lately. Perhaps Trump should start pitching his Twitter messaging in that direction instead.