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Monday Jul 22 2019

Trump says Iran's claim of breaking up CIA network 'totally false'

US President Donald Trump waves prior to departing on a trip from the White House in Washington, US, October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton/Files
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WASHINGTON/DUBAI: US President Donald Trump on Monday rebuffed Iran's claim of breaking up a network of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spies was "totally false".

A few hours earlier on Monday, Iran announced it had captured 17 spies working for the CIA and sentenced some of them to death, deepening a crisis between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Iranian state television published images that it said showed the CIA officers who had been in touch with the suspected spies. In a statement read on TV, the Ministry of Intelligence said the 17 spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019.

Some have been sentenced to death, according to another report.

Such announcements are not unusual in Iran and are often made for domestic consumption. But the timing suggests Tehran could harden its position in a standoff with Western powers, which has raised fears of a direct military confrontation.

In recent weeks, the US has blamed Iran for attacks on shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil trade’s most important waterway, accusations Iran has denied.

The US and Iran have downed drones operated by the other side and, on Friday, Iran captured a British-registered tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran had previously warned it would respond to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4.

There was no immediate comment on the Iranian allegations by the CIA or US officials.

Iran announced in June that it had broken up an alleged CIA spy ring but it was unclear whether Monday’s announcement was linked to the same case.

Britain's next move

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office has said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s COBR emergency response committee early on Monday to discuss the tanker crisis and the government was expected to announce its next steps in parliament.

As Britain weighed its next move a recording emerged showing the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized the Stena Impero, underscoring the challenges Britain faces responding.

Experts on the region say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when the US has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.

Washington imposed the sanctions after Trump pulled out of a deal signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, which had provided Iran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

European countries, including Britain, have been caught in the middle. They disagreed with the US decision to quit the nuclear deal but have so far failed to offer Iran another way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday Japan wants to make every effort to reduce tension between the US and Iran before responding to an expected request from Washington to send its navy to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.

Japanese media have said Washington’s proposal to boost surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes off Iran and Yemen could be on the agenda during a visit to Tokyo this week by US national security adviser John Bolton.

“We have a long tradition of friendship with Iran and I’ve met with its president any number of times, as well as other leaders,” Abe told a news conference after his coalition’s victory in a Sunday election for parliament’s upper house.

“Before we make any decisions on what to do, Japan would like to make every effort to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States.”

The US is struggling to win its allies’ support for an initiative to heighten surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes because of fears it will increase tension with Iran, six sources familiar with the matter said.

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