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Iran says it arrested 17 people spying for the CIA. The US says it’s fake news.

President Donald Trump called the claim “just more lies and propaganda.”

A man and a woman walk past a mural of the Iranian flag in Tehran on July 22, 2019.
People walk past a mural depicting a flying Iranian national flag along a street in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on July 22, 2019.
AFP/Getty Images

Iran says it has arrested 17 Iranian citizens who were aiding the CIA and that some of them have been sentenced to death — a claim Washington is denying.

Iran’s security agencies “successfully dismantled a [CIA] spy network,” the head of counterintelligence at the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence told reporters in Iran Monday. “Those who deliberately betrayed the country were handed to the judiciary,” he continued, adding that “some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment.”

Iranian officials later released pictures of several people it says are the “CIA handlers” of the alleged spies without divulging any of their names.

If the arrests and executions are true, it could certainly increase already sky-high tensions between the two countries.

“I’m sure the CIA does have some agents inside their country,” Bessma Momani, a Middle East expert at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told CTV on Monday. After all, she noted, the US and others have obtained critical information about Iran’s nuclear efforts in the past, almost certainly by recruiting Iranians to hand over that information.

But, she said, Iran may have made this claim simply to gin up domestic support and provide a scapegoat for Iranians to blame for their economic woes, which have been brought on by US-imposed sanctions and regime mismanagement.

The news “is playing very well” in Iran, Momani said. “It’s rallied a lot of people around the flag at a very critical time ... There is a feeling that someone’s got to pay for so much crisis there.”

What’s more, Iran may be making such a statement to dissuade Iranians from working with US intelligence in the future.

Which means there’s a chance the announcement, while troubling, could be fake news.

Some skepticism is in order

There are three reasons to be skeptical about Iran’s claim.

First, President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday morning that “The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda.” While Trump is not known for his honesty, his denial is unequivocal.

More credibly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was formerly the head of the CIA, has also downplayed the Iranian claim. “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertions about actions that they have taken,” he told Fox News on Monday.

Second, Iran has made similar claims like this before. For example, the Islamic Republic said in April and June that it had broken up similar spy rings while providing no support for those assertions. Monday’s statement could yet be another in a growing line of seemingly false provocative comments.

Finally, the context here is very important. Washington and Tehran remain locked in a months-long standoff with no end in sight. The US has imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy over its support for terrorism and its growing missile program, among other things, after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal last year; Iran has fought back by violating parts of the nuclear agreement and downing an American military drone.

It’s therefore plausible that Iran is claiming to have dealt a major blow as part of the tit-for-tat between the two nations over the past few weeks.

“Iran feels under siege,” Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the Cris Group, told me. “We have no way of knowing whether these claims are accurate or not, but of course innocents could be caught in between.”

The Iranian statement also comes just days after the US and its allies said they’d start patrolling strategic waterways — heavily defended by Iran — to protect commercial shipping. The UK will hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss how to handle Tehran’s seizure of a British oil tanker last week.

The moment, then, is fraught with danger — and Iran’s announcement won’t help.