Iranian President Hassan Rohani has criticized a recent wave of arrests carried out by the intelligence branch of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The arrests appear to be a backlash against Iran's landmark nuclear agreement reached with world powers in July, as well as part of hard-liners' efforts to stifle the political atmosphere ahead of national elections early next year.
While Rohani and his ministers have expressed a desire for better ties with the West, hard-liners have made it clear that the deal should not result in a rapprochement with the United States.
Speaking at a November 4 cabinet meeting, Rohani appeared to criticize the IRGC directly. "We should not arrest people gratuitously, making up cases against them and saying they are a part of an infiltration network," he said.
In a statement issued the day before, the IRGC's widely feared intelligence branch said it had arrested members of an "infiltration network" who had links with "hostile governments."
The statement said the arrests followed "months" of surveillance efforts. No names were provided, but the IRGC said it would provide further information in the future.
Speaking in a telephone interview with Iran's state television on November 3, an "expert" with the IRGC's intelligence unit said the arrested members of the alleged network wrote against "Iran's national interests" and "the values of the Islamic revolution" at the behest of foreign intelligence services.
"Beautifying the U.S.'s image, creating false cases of human rights [violations], and paving the way for the presence of Americans in Iran, was among their activities," said the IRGC member, who was identified only as Asef.
At least four journalists, including a former deputy culture minister, have been arrested in the past three days, while others have been reportedly summoned and threatened by the IRGC's intelligence unit.
Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese IT expert who had attended a conference in Tehran, and Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who was visiting his relatives in the Iranian capital, have been also targeted in recent weeks.
Their arrests come amid warnings by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior officials about Washington's alleged efforts "to infiltrate" the Islamic republic.
Khamenei has called on the authorities to remain vigilant about U.S. "political and cultural" penetration in the wake of the nuclear agreement.
IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari also warned this week about post-nuclear-deal "sedition."
"It seems that [the sedition] will be longer and will last for several years," Jafari was quoted as saying by domestic news sites on November 2.
The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the arrested journalists -- Issa Sahakhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarine Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzaee -- were victims of "the supreme leader's paranoia and infighting among the ruling elite's various factions."
"Such paranoid discoveries of 'spies' and 'espionage networks' occur with tragically comic regularity in the run-up to elections," the organization said in a November 4 statement.
Iran's reformists are hoping to make a comeback in elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts that are slated to be held in February 2016.