Iranian state television said on Wednesday that the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards had accused the UK’s deputy ambassador and other foreigners in the country of spying and taking soil samples from areas soldiers prohibited.
The country’s official IRNA news agency reported that the foreigners had been arrested but did not say when. Britain’s Foreign Office quickly denied the arrest of its diplomat, calling the report “completely untrue”.
Iranian state television broadcast footage purporting to show the foreigners taking samples from the ground under drone surveillance.
The storm of accusations follows escalating tensions over a spike in foreign arrests in Tehran and rapid progress in its nuclear work, while talks to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear deal remain in focus dead. Iran has detained a number of Europeans in recent months, including two French citizens and a Swedish tourist, as it seeks to gain leverage in negotiations.
The report also comes after Iran, in a rare move, replaced the Revolutionary Guards’ longtime intelligence chief.
Media reported that British Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Giles Whitaker and other foreigners have been accused of espionage after visiting various off-limits areas of the country while the Guard conducted missile tests.
The semi-official Fars news agency, seen as close to the Guard, claimed Whitaker was expelled from the area after he apologized to authorities.
The accusations in Iranian media came as the British public was fascinated by the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who faces mounting pressure to step down after defections from his cabinet.
State television aired a photo montage apparently showing Whitaker touring the desert southwest collecting soil samples against the backdrop of eerie music.
“Even though there were signs in that area saying it was a no-go area, he went further and took a sample and took a picture,” the narrator said. “Intelligence agencies say these people often pose as tourists but search military and missile sites to identify equipment and ammunition.”
Iranian media also identified Maciej Walczak, a Polish scientist from Copernicus University in Poland, among the accused foreigners. He also said he took soil, water and salt samples from a prohibited area during a missile test in the south of the country.
The report adds that the Guard’s intelligence wing detained the Austrian cultural attache’s husband in Iran after taking soil samples in the northeast of the country.
Iran has in the past arrested dual nationals and people with Western ties, often on widely criticized espionage charges, and used them as bargaining chips in talks over other issues, such as nuclear negotiations. Tehran denies using detainees to serve its political goals.
Talks to revive Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers have stalled for months. A recent effort to break the deadlock between US and Iranian negotiators ended without making progress in Doha last week.
US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley described the latest talks in Qatar as “more than a bit of a squandered opportunity”.
“They have and, including in Doha, added demands that I think anyone watching this would be seen as having nothing to do with the nuclear deal, things they have wanted in the past,” he said. Malley in an interview with National Public. Radio on Tuesday, undermining Tehran’s more optimistic assessments.
He added that the United States was working simultaneously to secure the release of four Americans detained in Iran.
“They were used as pawns,” he said. “But we are looking at what steps we could take to facilitate their return as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, as a shadow war between Israel and Iran has escalated in Tehran and across the Middle East, Iran announced last month that the head of the intelligence service of the Guard, Hossein Taeb, had been replaced by General Mohammad Kazemi, the former head of the Guard’s Security Service.
This surprise decision follows the deaths of several Guard officers in recent weeks.