Friday, November 25, 2011

Iran raises stakes with claims it has netted 12 US spies

IRAN has claimed a blow against US spying efforts on its nuclear program and strategic industries with the capture of 12 CIA ''assets''. US officials acknowledged its spy network targeting Iran had suffered a setback and expressed fears its contacts would be executed by the regime.

The Iranian Intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi, said on Thursday the alleged spies worked at the highest levels of ''major firms involved in oil, gas and nuclear industries''.  Parviz Sorouri, a member of Iran's national security and foreign policy committee, said the arrested spies were on a mission to cripple Iran in vital sectors with military and security links.  On Wednesday, IRNA state news agency quoted an Iranian official as saying the spies had been gathering intelligence from security and military units as well as its sensitive nuclear program.

''The main mission of this act of espionage was related to Iran's progress in the fields of nuclear technology and also military and security activities,'' Mr Sorouri said. ''The US and Zionist regime's espionage apparatuses were trying to damage Iran both from inside and outside with a heavy blow, using regional intelligence services. Fortunately, with swift reaction by the Iranian intelligence department, the actions failed to bear fruit.''

Mr Sorouri's comments follow reports on Monday that Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, had identified alleged CIA informants, including a network based in a Pizza Hut.  The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said in June his group had uncovered at least two CIA informants within its ranks but his claims were met with scepticism at the time.  The US embassy in Lebanon denied the accusation but officials conceded Hezbollah had methodically picked off CIA informants in recent months.

Former US officials told Reuters this week those arrested were indeed working for the CIA. The officials claimed the agents were ''believed to be local recruits'' working for the CIA rather than US citizens.  Iran did not specify the nationality of the individuals it has arrested and the CIA has declined to comment on the recent reports, saying ''it does not, as a rule discuss allegations of operational activities''.  A former CIA chief in Beirut, Robert Baer, told ABC News the arrests were ''catastrophic'' and amounted to a demonstration American had ''lost its touch'' in Middle East espionage.

The arrests further raise tensions in Iran's already strained relationship with the US. US authorities said last month factions inside the Iranian regime had conspired to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.  Iran denied the allegations and one Iranian diplomat told The Guardian the US had resorted to an ''entrapment technique'' in order to smear Tehran in the eyes of the world.  US allegations were met with scepticism because of the sloppy nature of the alleged assassination plot and the limited evidence provided by the US.

In a tit-for-tat reaction this month, Iranian officials accused the US of committing acts of terrorism. Iran said at the time it had evidence showing the US had been behind ''terror'' operations in Iran, including the assassination of its nuclear scientists.