Tehran: Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has detained several foreigners it accuses of spying, including a man it identified as Giles Whitaker, the UK’s former Deputy Head of Mission in Tehran, state media has reported.
A spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office denied that a British diplomat had been arrested in Iran, calling the reports “completely false.” Whitaker departed the country after finishing his posting in December 2021, according to another British official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Iranian news agency Fars, which is linked 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 spouse 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 showing apparent footage of the foreigners, as well as other images of them touring the nearby Lut Desert, a Unesco world heritage site.
Iran has a history of imprisoning foreign nationals, including US citizens. The claims of new arrests came amid heightened tensions with Western nations as negotiations between Iran and the United States to restore the 2015 nuclear deal have stalled. The talks have centered on restricting Iran’s atomic programme and lifting US sanctions — but have also addressed the seizing of hostages by the IRGC, often done to win concessions from the West.
The IRGC is Iran’s most powerful military and intelligence organisation, with its own air, land and naval units, and is considered by the US government to be a terrorist organisation. In the video posted by Fars on Wednesday, a reporter says that IRGC drones monitored the foreigners in the desert.
At one point, the video shows grainy aerial footage of a man and what appears to be two kids riding bikes. The reporter claims the scene shows the husband of Austria’s cultural attache to Tehran “spotted on IRGC drones getting samples from the soil as his children are playing.”
The reporter also says that Britain’s “second most senior envoy, who travelled to Iran with his family as a tourist . . . was spotted in the Shahdad Desert.”
“The footage shows that this person was collecting soil samples,” the report says. “He is going to be expelled from the country after an official apology.”
Talks to restore the nuclear deal resumed last month in Qatar after a long suspension, but they ended without agreement. 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 retain the enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the lifting of US and international sanctions.
The Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018, reimposing sanctions that had been lifted and adding many others as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.
The Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, in an interview with NPR on Tuesday, called the talks “more than a little bit of a wasted occasion.” Asked about several Americans who are being held by Iran, Malley said “they’ve been used as pawns.” The Iranians, he said, were “asking for things in exchange” for their release.
On Wednesday, in an apparent attempt to pressure Iran in the negotiations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was imposing further sanctions on the country’s “petroleum and petrochemical producers, transporters and front companies.”
“Absent a commitment from Iran to return to the JCPOA, an outcome we continue to pursue, we will keep using our authorities to target Iran’s exports of energy products,” he wrote on Twitter.