Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — Iran appears to be further stoking tensions with the West, announcing Monday it has captured 17 U.S. spies and sentenced some of them to death, an allegation the U.S. president denied.
The announcement from Iran’s ministry of intelligence claimed the spies had been captured during the past year and had been collecting information from “sensitive sites,” like military and nuclear facilities, for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
An Iranian counterintelligence official further said that despite having received sophisticated training from the United States, none of the alleged spies had been successful in efforts to sabotage the Iranian facilities. Television reports also showed photographs of alleged CIA officers who had been in touch with the spies.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Monday, "The Report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda (like their shot down drone) put out by a Religious Regime that is Badly Failing and has no idea what to do."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also downplayed the Iranian claims.
"The Iranian regime has a long history of lying," Pompeo told Fox News early Monday.
“It's part of the nature of the Ayatollah to lie to the world,'' he added. “I would take with a significant grain of salt any Iranian assertion about actions that they've taken.''
This is not the first time Iranian intelligence officials have made such claims about the capture of American spies.
Back in April, Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted the intelligence minister as saying Tehran had uncovered a U.S. spy network which included hundreds of agents across several countries.
A U.S. official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, disputed a similar set of Iranian claims in June.
These latest Iranian claims, though, come as tensions between Iran and the West have been rising steadily over a series of incidents in the Strait of Hormuz, culminating with Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker on Friday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to meet later Monday with security ministers and security officials for emergency talks about how to handle the incident.
Among the potential responses Britain is considering is the prospect of imposing economic sanctions on Iran.
Iran’s embassy in India said Monday that all crew members of the seized Stena Impero oil tanker remained on the ship.
"All the crew members including the Indian nationals are in good health," the embassy assured the Reuters news agency in a message.
The ship’s crew includes 18 Indian nationals, three Russians, a Latvian and a Filipino.
In an audio recording of the incident released by the maritime security risk firm Dryad Global on Sunday, a British warship warned an Iranian patrol boat against interfering with the passage of the Stena Impero through the Strait of Hormuz.
A British naval officer can be heard telling the tanker that it was operating in international waters and that its "passage must not be impaired, intruded, obstructed or hampered."
The British officer then tells an Iranian patrol boat: "Please confirm that you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the MV Stena.''
But an Iranian officer told the tanker to change course, saying, "You obey, you will be safe. Alter your course to 360 degrees immediately, over."
The officer said the ship was wanted for security reasons. Iran Revolutionary Guard commandos descending from a helicopter seized the tanker shortly after the conversation.
Iranian officials have since said that the seizure of the tanker was in response to Britain's impounding two weeks ago of an Iranian supertanker at Gibraltar that was believed to be transporting 2 million barrels of crude oil to Syria.
U.S.-Iranian tensions have escalated in the year since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 international accord aimed at restraining Tehran's nuclear weapons program and reimposed economic sanctions against Iran to curb its international oil trade.
"Having failed to lure @realDonaldTrump into War of the Century, and fearing collapse of his #B_Team, @AmbJohnBolton is turning his venom against the UK in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire," Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Sunday on Twitter.
Make no mistake:— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 21, 2019
Having failed to lure @realDonaldTrump into War of the Century, and fearing collapse of his #B_Team, @AmbJohnBolton is turning his venom against the UK in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire.
Only prudence and foresight can thwart such ploys.
Zarif also repeated claims that U.S. policy towards Tehran is “economic terrorism.”
Today at NAM mtg on sanctions I said, "Terrorism is use of violence & intimidation against civilians in pursuit of political aims."— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) July 21, 2019
The US is thus engaged in #EconomicTerrorism. It cannot be called “sanctions”, as they're not designed to enforce laws. They in fact violate law. pic.twitter.com/NaajhwOtf4
In addition to seizing the British oil tanker, Iran has also targeted U.S. assets in recent weeks.
In late June, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone after alleging it violated Iranian airspace – a claim the U.S. denied.
Last week, the Pentagon said that forces aboard aboard the USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone after it “closed within a threatening range” while the ship was in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.
Some information from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.