U.S. President Donald Trump has vehemently denied claims from Tehran that Iranian security agencies have arrested 17 suspects and sentenced some of them to death after dismantling a CIA spy ring.
Speaking to reporters at the White House on July 22, Trump said that Tehran has "disrespected" the United States, which is making it "harder" for his administration to find the will to make a deal with Iran to replace the 2015 nuclear accord that the president unilaterally pulled out of last year.
"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 in a July 22 message on Twitter.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said earlier in the day that Iranian security agencies "successfully dismantled" what it described as a CIA "spy network" on July 18.
"Some were sentenced to death and some to long-term imprisonment," said one ministry official, whose name was not revealed.
"The identified spies were employed in sensitive and vital private sector centers in the economic, nuclear, infrastructural, military and cyber areas...where they collected classified information," an Intelligence Ministry statement said.
According to Iranian state media reports, those suspected of spying for the CIA were arrested during the Iranian calendar year that ended in March 2019.
Iranian state media have also released photographs that purportedly show "CIA officers" that Iranian authorities say were in touch with spies in Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also cast doubt on the arrests in a television interview earlier on July 22, saying Iran's "regime has a long history of lying."
The report follows a month of naval brinksmanship, seizures, and reported shoot-downs of drones involving Iranian and Western forces seemingly increasingly at risk of conflict.
For weeks, Trump has urged other countries to condemn what he called Iranian attempts to disrupt free navigation and global commerce in the Persian Gulf region.
Last week, Iran seized a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz after British Royal marines on July 4 seized an Iranian tanker of the coast of Gibraltar for allegedly attempting to illegally smuggle oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
Trump has said previously that he would meet with Iranian leaders to work on a deal on nuclear and other security issues, but Tehran has said it won't hold talks while the sanctions are still in place.
But on July 22 he appeared to back off slightly from that position, calling Iran a "very mixed up country" that has "a lot of problems."
"So, whatever it is, I'm just going to sit back and wait" to see whether Tehran is going to agree to negotiate limits on its nuclear program and other activities.
"If they want to make a deal, frankly it's getting harder for me to want to make a deal with Iran because they've behaved very badly. They're saying bad things," he added.
Iran's economy has been hobbled by the U.S. reimposition last year of sanctions after Washington withdrew from a nuclear deal with Iran and world powers to trade international sanctions relief for curbs on Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
European signatories to the 2015 agreement have vowed to try to stick with it despite the difficulties posed by tough penalties for disobeying the U.S. sanctions.
Trump has said publicly he would meet with Iranian leaders to work on a deal on nuclear and other security issues, but Tehran has said it won’t hold talks while the sanctions are still in place.