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U.S. Officials Skeptical After Iran Says It Arrested 17 Iranians On Spying Charges

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iran claims it has arrested 17 Iranian nationals on charges of spying for the United States. Some of them, Iran says, have been sentenced to death. American officials are skeptical. On Twitter, President Trump wrote, quote, "the report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false - zero truth."

I want to bring in Jason Rezaian. He is a journalist for The Washington Post. Five years ago today, he was living in Tehran and was arrested on suspicion of spying for the United States. He was imprisoned for more than a year.

Jason, hi. And welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JASON REZAIAN: Thanks for having me on, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So let me start with the few facts that we do have. What details do we have about these arrests? What evidence against them has actually been made public?

REZAIAN: Well, I haven't seen any actual evidence made public other than the assertions that the Iranian Intelligence Ministry has made. And oftentimes, they've been completely unsubstantiated. So, you know, I think we have to look at the situation as an evolving one and also recognize this as more of a matter of domestic propaganda for domestic audiences than anything that necessarily happened. But that could change, and we might find that these are real people.

KELLY: And what - that propaganda would be in the service of what? What does Iran gain by making this announcement now, at, of course, a time of even-higher-than-usual tension between the U.S. and Iran?

REZAIAN: At moments in their history when the Islamic Republic has faced external and internal pressure from their own populace, they have tried to represent themselves as all-powerful, all-knowing. The idea is that we see everything that goes on in this country, and we're protecting you.

And I think that the reality is the likelihood of an actual military conflict between the U.S. and Iran, the U.K. and Iran and any of our allies and Iran is at the highest point that it's ever been in these last 40 years. So, you know, it's natural for that government to want to calm some of the fears of people in the country.

And by saying that they've caught a ring of CIA spies, I think it's intended to create some sense of security among the populace, but also, at the same time, a bit of fear, as well.

KELLY: To speak of the history between the U.S. and Iran and our intelligence services, the CIA did orchestrate a coup in Iran back in 1953. Far more recently, there's Stuxnet, the cyberweapon developed by the U.S. and Israel to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. To what extent does the history inform Iran's suspicions about what the U.S. and the CIA may be up to?

REZAIAN: I think to a very great extent. Many would say that the taking of the embassy and holding U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days was a direct response 26 years later to the coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mossadegh.

So I think it's a two-way street. Iran's responses to the perception of espionage taking place on their soil seems aggrandized to most people who are looking at this rationally, but that's not to say that the CIA isn't operating in Iran. Of course, I imagine that they are.

KELLY: I mentioned it was five years ago today that you were arrested in Iran on espionage charges. You stood trial. May I ask what your first thought was when you woke up and saw today's news?

REZAIAN: Well, you know, I thought about my own experience. I wondered if these 17 individuals who are - have gone unnamed - if they're actually - you know, if this is just a story or if there's actually 17 people behind bars.

And then I thought about the other Americans, the other dual nationals. Essentially, all of those cases, and mine, were cases of hostage-takings where the Islamic Republic was trying to use foreign nationals as political leverage on the international scene. And if that's what's going on here, I feel very, very, very worried for those individuals because it's a very unclear fate that they face...

KELLY: Yeah.

REZAIAN: ...But also sad for the Iranian public because they deserve much better.

KELLY: Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

REZAIAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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