Iran arrests dozens of ‘spies’ working In government bodies

Iran has been struggling with a perennial issue of espionage by foreign powers, particularly by the US, UK, and Israel.

September 1, 2018 15:52
4 minute read.
Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran, Iran

Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran, Iran.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Iran announced on Tuesday that it had arrested "dozens of spies" working in government organizations and bodies, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi told the semi-official ISNA news agency, according to Reuters.

The minister provided few details on those detained and the circumstances of their arrest, but suggested that most are dual nationals. “The intelligence ministry’s anti-espionage unit has successfully identified and arrested tens of spies in different governmental bodies,” Alavi told ISNA. “I have repeatedly asked people to inform us if they know any dual national,” Alavi added, without specifying what those dual nationalities are.

The Iranian regime does not recognize dual nationalities. This means that those arrested will not be able to seek diplomatic services and representation from the countries of which they are passport holders, as enshrined in the UN Vienna Convention. UN officials have described this growing practice as Iran’s "arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals.”

Analysts believe the arrests of dual nationals have been increasing since Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pronounced some time ago that Western agents were “infiltrating” Iranian governmental bodies. They also believe this might be a pressure tactic on Western governments in light of the re-imposition of biting US sanctions on the Iranian economy, set in place after the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last May.

The nuclear deal set measures in place to end the international sanctions on Iran in return for greater restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program.

After the partial return of sanctions, the Iranian economy has been in free fall as the currency—the rial—has slipped to record lows. This instability has sparked several protests throughout the country with calls to reform the political system, amounting to a direct challenge to the country’s Islamist leadership.

By making the arrests, Alavi claimed that his ministry had foiled a number of “terrorists” planning to set off bombs in metro stations and universities, Reuters reported. The minister, however, did not offer specifics about the alleged plots.

Sunni jihadist groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State (ISIS) consider the Islamic Republic, a majority Shi’ite country, an arch-enemy. These groups view Shi’ites as apostates of the Islamic faith. Last year, Islamic State terrorists carried out attacks on Tehran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. At least 18 people were killed in the attacks. Since then, Iran’s security forces have been on heightened alert, investigating alleged terrorist cells throughout the country. It is unclear, though, if the recent arrests have anything to do with combating ISIS or other terrorist organizations.

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs, told The Media Line that “Iran is exposing so-called ‘Zionist,’ American, British, and other Western spies.”

He explained that in many cases the arrests are based on fictions that serve various purposes, such a getting rid of internal enemies or boosting the morale of the public.

“From time to time, the Iranians arrest real spies,” Melman added. “But at times, these arrests are fairly ridiculous. Iranian intelligence officials once claimed that they busted a Zionist ring of a dozen or so squirrels found within the nation's borders. They claimed these rodents were being used to spy for Israel and Western powers.”

Mahan Abedin, an analyst of Middle Eastern politics and columnist based in London, told The Media Line that the arrests “come against a backdrop of heightened security concerns in Iran, partly because of the ratcheting up of US pressure.”

He explained that this is definitely not about purging domestic opponents as Iran already does that in an official manner for transparent political or security reasons.

“Iran has been struggling with a perennial issue of espionage by foreign powers, particularly by the US, UK, and Israel. But many other countries are involved in this game, trying to recruit human resources.”

This, he explains, presents a complicated picture. On one hand, there is a high level of espionage activities by adversary countries, but on the other, Iran is trying to build up its counter-intelligence capabilities. 

“So Iran presents a very tough operational environment for foreign services trying to gather intelligence,” Abedin said, explaining that the Islamic Republic tries to keep the public informed while sending messages of deterrence against would-be infiltrators.  

“One of the issues going on in Iran is the question of dual nationals. These are Iranians who hold some kind of foreign nationality, mostly European or North American. These people have been identified as security risks if they happen to work within the government or have close relations with it.”

For more stories like this, visit the Media Line.

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