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Iran says it has broken up CIA spy ring, with some members sentenced to death

US President Donald Trump denied the arrests of 17 people linked to the CIA, calling the reports 'totally false'
Iran's Ministry of Intelligence said 17 spies were arrested between March 2018 and March 2019 (AFP)

Iran says it has captured 17 spies working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), some of whom have been sentenced to death, Iranian media reported on Monday.

Iranian state television published images that it said showed the CIA officers who were in touch with the suspected spies.

In a statement read on state television, the intelligence ministry said 17 spies were arrested.

The suspects were arrested between March 2018 and March 2019.

"The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centres in the economic, nuclear, infrastructure, military and cyber areas... where they collected classified information," read the ministry statement.

US President Donald Trump denied the arrests of people linked to the CIA, calling the reports "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," Trump wrote on Twitter.

Earlier, in an interview with the Fox News Channel, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also dismissed Iran's allegations.

"The Iranian regime has a long history of lying... I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they've taken," he said.

Pompeo declined to comment about any specific cases, but added: "There's a long list of Americans that we are working to get home from the Islamic Republic of Iran."

'Visa trap'

The head of counter-intelligence at the intelligence ministry, whose identity was not revealed, told reporters in Tehran: "Those who deliberately betrayed the country were handed to the judiciary... some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment."

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Some of them had been recruited by falling into a "visa trap" set by the CIA for Iranians seeking to travel to the United States.

"Some were approached when they were applying for a visa, while others had visas from before and were pressured by the CIA in order to renew them," said the official.

Their mission was to collect classified information and carry out "technical and intelligence operations at important and sensitive centres using advanced equipment," he said.

"All of the network's members, all the 17 people, were trained by CIA officers on how to set up safe communications."

'CIA officer' shown

An Iranian television documentary aired on Monday purported to show a CIA officer recruiting an Iranian man in the United Arab Emirates.

"Because there are so many intelligence officers in Dubai. It is very dangerous... Iranian intelligence," a woman was shown telling an Iranian in the documentary about alleged CIA spying in Iran.

The woman spoke Farsi with an accent which appeared to be American. 

Iran announced in June that it had broken up an alleged CIA spy ring but it was unclear whether Monday's announcement was linked to the same case.

The announcement comes after three months of spiralling confrontation between Iran and the West that began when new tighter US sanctions took effect in May.

The US has blamed Iran for a string of incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, an important shipping alley in the oil trade bordering one coast of Iran. Iran has denied the accusations.

On Friday, Iran seized a British-flagged oil tanker in the strait.

Tehran had previously warned it would retaliate after the Britain captured an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar on 4 July.

Asked about any possible US role in the tensions, Pompeo said: "The responsibility... falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships."

Trump has said publicly he would meet with Iranian leaders to make an agreement on nuclear and other security issues, but Tehran has rebuffed such offers, saying it is not open to talks with sanctions still in place.