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Iran’s Revolutionary Guard accuses diplomats of spying

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) – Iranian state TV said on Wednesday that the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard has accused the deputy ambassador of the United Kingdom (UK) and other foreigners in the country of “espionage” and taking soil samples from prohibited
military zones.

The country’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that the foreigners had been arrested, but did not elaborate on when.

The UK Foreign Office swiftly denied that its diplomat was arrested, calling the report “completely false”.

Iran’s state TV ran footage purporting to show the foreigners collecting samples from the ground while under drone surveillance.

The storm of accusations follow escalating tensions over a pickup in Tehran’s arrests of foreigners and a rapid advancement of its nuclear work, while talks to revive the landmark 2015 atomic accord remain at a standstill. 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 Guard’s longstanding intelligence chief.

Iran’s national flag waves in Tehran. PHOTO: AP

News outlets reported the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy Giles Whitaker, and other foreigners faced “spying” charges after visiting various forbidden zones in the country while the Guard was carrying out missile tests.

The semiofficial Fars news agency, believed to be close to the Guard, claimed Whitaker was expelled from the area after offering authorities an apology.

The accusations splashed across Iranian media as the British public was transfixed by the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who faces growing pressure to step down after defections from his Cabinet.

State TV broadcast a photo montage apparently showing Whitaker tour the southwestern desert collecting soil samples against the backdrop of eerie music.

“Even though there were signs in that area saying this was a forbidden area, he went further and took a sample and took a picture,” the narrator said. “Intelligence agencies say that these people often pose as tourists, but are looking for military and missile sites to identify equipment and ammunition.”

Iranian media also identified a Polish scientist at Copernicus University in Poland Maciej Walczak, as among the accused foreigners. It similarly said he took samples of soil, water and salt from a forbidden area during a missile test in the country’s south.

The report added that the Guard’s intelligence wing detained the husband of Austria’s cultural attaché in Iran after he took soil samples in the country’s northeast.

Iran has in the past arrested dual nationals and those with Western ties, often on widely criticised espionage charges, and used them as bargaining chips in talks over other issues, such as nuclear negotiations. Tehran denies using detainees to further its political aims.

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.