Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested several foreign diplomats including a Briton, accusing them of “spying”, the Fars news agency and state television said Wednesday.
“The Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence service identified and arrested diplomats from foreign embassies who were spying in Iran,” Fars said, adding that a British diplomat was subsequently expelled from the country.
State television however reported that the Briton, identified as Giles Whitaker, was expelled from “the area” where the diplomats had been arrested in central Iran.
Details including the nationality of the other diplomats, how many were arrested and the date of arrest were not immediately clear.
State television accused the British diplomat of “carrying out intelligence operations” in areas were military manoeuvres were carried out. Video showed images of a man presented as Whitaker speaking in a room.
Whitaker has been deputy head of mission to Tehran since 2018.
A state TV journalist said the diplomat “was among those who went to the Shahdad desert with his family as tourists”, referring to an area in central Iran.
“As the images show, this person took photos… in a prohibited area where at the same time a military exercise was taking place,” the broadcaster said.
He “was expelled from the area after apologising”, state TV said, though the Fars agency said “he was expelled from the country after apologising”.
– Belgian case –
The news comes amid tensions as Iran and world powers struggle to agree on a return to a 2015 nuclear deal.
It also comes as Belgium’s parliament on Wednesday approved a controversial prisoner-swap treaty with Iran in a first reading of a text that still has to be submitted to a full vote to be ratified.
Belgian Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne on Tuesday told MPs that unless the treaty was adopted, “the threat to our Belgian interests and certain Belgian citizens will increase”.
A Belgian humanitarian aid worker was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in detention since, Quickenborne told MPs.
MPs and the Belgian man’s family identified him as Olivier Vandecasteele, 41.
Rights groups and media outlets covering Iran said it appeared to be another case of Tehran grabbing hostages to exchange for Iranians incarcerated in the West.
Several are held in Evin, in a wing run by the intelligence service of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Among them is a Swedish academic who also holds Iranian citizenship, Ahmadreza Djalali, who taught at a Brussels university. Iran also applied “espionage” charges to Djalali and has sentenced him to death.
Belgium last year convicted and imprisoned an Iranian diplomat for 20 years for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris in 2018.
– French couple –
Also Wednesday Iran accused a French couple detained in May while on holiday of allegedly “undermining the security” of the country, the judicial authority said.
French teachers’ union official Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris were arrested in early May while on Easter vacation sightseeing in the Islamic republic. They are accused by the authorities of seeking to stir labour protests.
The pair stand “accused of association and collusion with the aim of undermining the security of the country”, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told reporters in Tehran.
Iran said they were accused of “entering the country to sow chaos and destabilise society”.
The French government has condemned their arrest as “baseless” and demanded their immediate release.
Last month Amnesty International called on the British government to investigate Iran’s six-year detention of dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, denouncing it as “an act of hostage-taking”.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, who was first detained in Iran in 2016, returned to Britain in March along with fellow dual national Anoosheh Ashoori after London agreed to pay a longstanding debt to Tehran.
Amnesty has compiled a detailed analysis of the case, which it says includes “compelling evidence that Iran’s detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe amounted to an act of hostage-taking”.