David Barrett & Robert Tait — Telegraph Dec 14, 2013
Iran claims to have captured a British “spy” in a move that has threatened to cause a diplomatic crisis.
Officials in the country said a businessman in his fifties had been detained on suspicion of gathering intelligence “in all spheres” for the British security services.
They claimed he had confessed to meeting MI6 agents inside and outside Iran on 11 occasions.
Iran’s decision to publicise the arrest comes at a critical stage of diplomacy between the two countries, which broke off all official contact after the attack on the British embassy in Tehran two years ago.
Experts have said that the arrest and its announcement may have been driven by hardliners who oppose a deal to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons.
IRNA, Iran’s state news agency, reported that security forces had arrested an alleged spy working for the British Government in Kerman, a south-eastern province. The nationality of the arrested man, who is alleged to have “confessed” to espionage, has not been disclosed. There was no suggestion he is a British national. Spying in Iran carries the death penalty.
A Foreign Office spokesman said she would not comment on intelligence matters. Government sources said that the tactic of arresting local people on false charges of being British spies was something that happened “every few months” but that they were usually not publicised by the regime.
It was feared that the arrest could signal a determination among Iranian hardliners to unseat negotiations with the West, including last month’s agreement on the country’s nuclear programme. The “spying” charge could compromise diplomatic achievements, although Whitehall is understood to be treating the development with caution.
The nuclear deal led to the first formal contact between the United States and Tehran since they severed diplomatic ties over the 1979 hostage crisis, and was viewed as a crucial step towards avoiding a crisis in the Middle East.
Tehran is known to have used trumped-up spying allegations in the past to resolve internal disagreements. Dadkhoda Salari, the head of Kerman revolutionary court, said the alleged spy was a man with “business activities” who established a link with the British embassy in Tehran before its closure.
“The accused has had 11 face-to-face meetings with British intelligence officers, both inside and outside the country, and in every single meeting has passed to his MI6 contacts the specific information that they had asked him to collect,” said Mr Salari.
“At the same time he has received certain instructions that would have enabled him to act against the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“He had been in touch with four intelligence officers and after receiving their instructions and training he has transferred their specific requested information to the country of their origin.
“This spy has been captured after many months of complicated intelligence operations and with the help of the almighty God.”
Mr Salari added that the man’s trial was already taking place and that he had “confessed” to all charges. The judicial spokesman said the accused had academic qualifications and spoke fluent English, and claimed he had collected intelligence “in all spheres” for Britain.
Tasnim news, an Iranian news website, claimed one of the man’s alleged meetings with British intelligence took place in London.
The announcement came a day after Hassan Habibollah-Zadeh, Iran’s new envoy to Britain, made his first visit to London. Mr Habibollah-Zadeh said that negotiations were under way to “resolve the existing issues”, so full ties could be restored. It is unclear what effect, if any, the arrest of the alleged spy would have in those negotiations.
Prof Ali Ansari, the director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews and a senior associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, said: “This probably has more to do with some of the more hawkish and hardline elements within the revolutionary establishment trying to put a spanner in the works of the rapprochement negotiations.
“The Iranian regime has done a fantastic PR job over the last couple of months selling the country as being ‘open for business’. But this news sours that, and suggests the old Iran is alive and well.”
He added: “Kerman is in the middle of nowhere, there’s no nuclear facilities there and all they do is grow pistachios. So what this man could be accused of doing there is a little strange.”
Britain shut its Tehran embassy after it was damaged in November 2011 by students protesting against Western sanctions.
In another high-profile incident, in 2007, Iran seized 15 personnel from HMS Cornwall who were on anti-drug smuggling operations in the Gulf, and held them for 13 days. Their detention gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then Iranian president, a public relations coup.