That history includes numerous false allegations of spying, often directed against Iranian nationals who also hold citizenship in other countries. Several such individuals are known to be serving sentences in Iranian prisons today.
These include the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who appeared to be targeted in April 2016 primarily because of her past employment by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The now 40-year-old mother was sentenced to five years for supposedly playing a leading role in an “infiltration network” pursuing the “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic, though no actual evidence has been cited to substantiate that claim.
Also in custody are at least four American citizens: businessman Siamak Namazi, his father Baquer, Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, and a former US Navy serviceman, Michael White, who traveled to the Islamic Republic in 2018 to visit an Iranian girlfriend. It is also widely believed that Iran took captive a former FBI agent named Robert Levinson in 2007. Although little information about his condition or whereabouts has come to light since 2011, his family insists that he is still being held by the Iranians.
It is not yet known whether any American citizens are among the 17 individuals supposedly arrested in connection with CIA spying. For that matter, it is also not known whether Tehran’s account of the arrests is factual. They reportedly took place over the previous Iranian calendar year, spanning from March 2018 to March 2019. This being the case, the very recent disclosure of those arrests can easily be interpreted as part of an effort to project an image of strength in the midst of escalating tensions between Iran and the West. These reached a new milestone on Friday when Iran seized a British-flagged commercial vessel, apparently in retaliation for Britain’s July 4 seizure of vessel carrying Iranian oil to Syria, in violation of both US and EU sanctions.
The Washington Post noted on Tuesday that its proximity to this clash indicates that Iran’s announcement of widespread arrests is following a familiar script. Specifically, the report points out that similar announcements have followed other flare-ups between Iran and the US, including the Trump administration’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization in April, and the American announcement of successful cyberattacks on Iranian missile infrastructure in the wake of Iran’s downing of a US surveillance drone.
Alongside the apparent connection between ongoing tensions and the recent arrests, Secretary of State Pompeo suggested on Tuesday that Iran’s announcement may also have some bearing upon the case of the American citizens and other dual nationals already in custody. To date, none of those individuals have been subjected to a sentence exceeding 10 years, although all of them have also faced varying levels of extrajudicial pressure in the form of withheld medical care, physical, and psychological abuse.
But recent statements from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence indicate that an unspecified number of the supposed CIA assets have already been sentenced to death. Additionally, Iranian state media released images of mostly Western-looking persons in other countries of the region, identifying them as the CIA recruiters who had contacted the targets of Iran’s counterespionage operation. As with the resulting arrests themselves, it is difficult to know whether Iran’s claims on this topic are accurate. But as a correspondent for ABC News noted on Tuesday, the media images are sure to endanger the lives of the persons involved, regardless of whether they actually work for the CIA.
This is perhaps by design, as it represents a sort of open threat to Western nationals not just inside the Islamic Republic but in the various areas of the Middle East where Tehran has deepened its influence in recent years. On Saturday, less than a day after the seizure of the British-flagged tanker, the United Kingdom suspended all flights to Cairo, citing an elevated terror threat that is very likely connected in some way to the Islamic Republic and its proxies.