Iran says it is holding former British diplomat among several foreigners

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has detained several foreigners it accuses of spying, including a man it identified as Giles Whitaker, the former deputy head of the United Kingdom’s mission in Tehran, state media reported Wednesday.

A spokesman for the British Foreign Office denied that a British diplomat had been arrested in Iran, calling the reports “totally false”. Whitaker left the country after resigning from his post in December 2021, according to another British official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. Iran’s Fars news agency, which has ties to the IRGC, said Whitaker had returned to Iran as a tourist when he was detained.

The group of foreigners — including a Polish researcher and the wife of an Austrian diplomat — are accused of collecting soil samples in a restricted area of ​​the Shahdad Desert, Fars reported. The agency also posted a video of apparent footage of the foreigners, as well as other footage of them touring the nearby Lut Desert, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iran has a history of incarcerating foreigners, including US citizens. The claims of new arrests came amid heightened tensions with Western countries as negotiations between Iran and the United States to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal have stalled. The talks focused on limiting Iran’s nuclear program and lifting US sanctions, but also focused on the IRGC’s seizure of hostages, often done to win concessions from the West.

The IRGC is Iran’s most powerful military and intelligence organization, with its own air, land and naval units, and is considered a terrorist organization by the US government. In the video Fars posted on Wednesday, a reporter says IRGC drones were monitoring foreigners in the desert.

At one point, the video shows grainy aerial footage of a man and what appears to be two children cycling. The reporter claims the scene shows the husband of the Austrian cultural attache to Tehran “spotted on IRGC drones picking up monsters from the ground while his children are playing.”

The reporter also says that Britain’s second-oldest envoy, who traveled to Iran with his family as a tourist… was spotted in the Shahdad desert.

“The images show that this person was collecting soil samples,” the report said. “He will be deported after an official apology.”

Talks to restore the nuclear deal resumed in Qatar last month after a lengthy suspension but ended without a deal. Iran accused the United States of repeating its previous positions in the negotiations, while the United States blamed Iran for introducing new demands.

The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), curbed Iran’s ability to produce and maintain the enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the lifting of US and international sanctions.

The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, reimposing sanctions that had been lifted and adding many others as part of a campaign of “maximum pressure.”

The Biden administration’s special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, called the talks “more than a bit of a wasted opportunity” in an interview with NPR on Tuesday. Asked about several Americans held by Iran, Malley said, “They have been used as pawns.” The Iranians, he said, “asked for things in return” for their release.

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken, in an apparent attempt to pressure Iran during the negotiations, said the United States was imposing further sanctions on the country’s “petroleum and petrochemical producers, transporters and front companies.”

“In the absence of a commitment from Iran to return to the JCPOA, an outcome we continue to pursue, we will continue to use our authorities to crack down on Iran’s exports of energy products,” he wrote on Twitter.

Fahim reported from Bodrum, Turkey. William Booth in London contributed to this report.

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