LONDON — Iran said on Monday that it had arrested 17 Iranian nationals on charges of spying for the United States and that it had already executed some of them, the Iranian news media reported.
Iran has previously claimed to have broken up American spy rings, and it made similar announcements in April and again in June of this year. In this case, an official who identified himself as an intelligence officer described the arrests at a news conference in Tehran, but he declined to give his name, The Associated Press reported. He also declined to identify those who were arrested or to state how many had been killed.
Although the claims could not be confirmed, they come at a moment of rising tensions between Iran and the West. Tehran and Washington are in a showdown over President Trump’s imposition of sweeping new sanctions against Iran to force it to renegotiate a 2015 nuclear accord it signed with several international powers.
Against that backdrop, Iran on Friday seized a British-flagged oil tanker entering the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has accused the tanker of various legal infractions but also described the seizure as retaliation for the British impounding an Iranian tanker on July 4 off the coast of Gibraltar.
Britain has said it detained the Iranian tanker on suspicion that it was violating a European Union embargo on the delivery of oil to Syria. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt has called it a tanker “tit-for-tat,” and the British government has threatened “serious consequences” and “robust” action if Iran does not release the British ship.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to leave office on Wednesday, was scheduled on Monday morning to hold the latest in a series of emergency cabinet meetings to address the tanker seizure.
A race within the Conservative Party to succeed her is still is nearing its completion. The favorite is Boris Johnson, a former foreign minister who has not publicly expressed an opinion about the crisis. He has styled himself as a populist and a nationalist, and analysts say his response is hard to predict.
In May and June, six tankers from various nations were damaged in the Gulf of Oman, in what United States officials described as attacks by Iran. Iran denied responsibility. The gulf connects to the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage leading to the Persian Gulf, through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil supply flows.
Iran also shot down an American surveillance drone that it said had violated its airspace, but which the United States said was over international waters, prompting President Trump to order airstrikes that he then called off at the last minute.