The UK Foreign Office denied claims by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Wednesday evening that the deputy head of the United Kingdom's mission in Iran, Giles Whitaker, and a number of other diplomats and academics were detained by the IRGC for allegedly spying and taking samples of soil from a "prohibited area" during a missile exercise.These reports that our Deputy Ambassador is currently detained are very interesting," said UK Ambassador to Iran Simon Shercliff on Thursday morning. "He actually left Iran last December, at the end of his posting."
Video footage released by the IRGC claimed to show the deputy ambassador near a site where the IRGC was conducting missile exercises at the time. The deputy ambassador has since apologized and been expelled, according to the reports.
One of the suspects detained by the IRGC had entered the country as part of a scientific exchange with a university. The report claimed that one of the suspects was from the Nicolaus Copernicus University, adding that the university is "associated with the Zionist regime." The IRGC claimed that the suspect sampled soil in some areas.
The IRGC claimed that diplomats are often used to look for military sites and identify equipment and munitions. The report also claimed that the diplomats were being used in order to build a new case concerning the "military aspects of Iran's file in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)."
The UK Foreign Office denied the claims by the IRGC, telling Sky News that "reports of the arrest of a British diplomat in Iran are completely false."
On Wednesday evening, Secretary of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights Kazem Gharibabadi claimed that the UK was leading an "anti-Iran project over human rights," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
Gharibabadi claimed that most UN special rapporteurs for Iran are supported by the British government and live in the UK.
Nuclear talks remain stalled
The claims come as talks between Iran and the world powers to attempt to return to the JCPOA nuclear deal remain stalled.
The US has complained that Iran has brought new demands unrelated to the JCPOA deal to the table, while Iranian officials have complained that the US is not willing to lift sanctions before a return to the deal.
US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley called recent indirect talks in Doha a "wasted occasion," saying that Iran "needs to provide an answer" on the issue, in an interview with NPR on Tuesday.
Malley stated that Iran is "much closer" to having enough fissile material for a bomb, but had not resumed it weaponization program. The special envoy added that it would take Iran "a matter of weeks" to make a nuclear weapon. "It would be something that we would know, we would see and to which we would react quite forcefully, as you could imagine."
Not the first time a UK diplomat has been detained in Iran
In January 2020, then UK ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, was arrested at a vigil for the 176 people who were killed when a Ukraine International Airlines aircraft was shot down by the IRGC. Protests broke out throughout Iran, including in Tehran, after the plane was downed.
Macaire was released and returned to London for a period of about three weeks before returning to Iran in February 2020. Simon Shercliff is the current British ambassador to Iran.