Iran Claims to Uncover Spy Networks Organized By U.S., Western Allies

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Iran said this weekend it has uncovered spy rings organized by the United States and its Western allies, claiming on state-run television that the espionage networks were made up of "infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers."

The Intelligence Ministry has "succeeded in identifying and striking blows at several spy networks comprised of infiltrating elements from the Iraqi occupiers in western, southwestern and central Iran," said the statement, using shorthand for United States and its allies.

The broadcast did not elaborate on how the alleged networks were uncovered, but said further details would be published within days.

Meanwhile, state IRNA news agency said the networks "enjoyed guidance from intelligence services of the occupying powers in Iraq" and also that "Iraqi groups" were "involved in the case."

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iran has often accused the United States and Britain of trying to undermine the security of the Islamic Republic.

The allegations Saturday come just two days before ambassadors of the US and Iran are to sit down in Baghdad to discuss ways to ease the Iraq crisis. It remains unclear how the announcement will impact those talks, although it reflects a toughening of Iran's stand.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki echoed that note, saying Saturday that the Baghdad talks can bear fruit only if Washington takes a "realistic approach."

"The two sides can be hopeful about the outcome of the negotiations, if America develops a realistic view toward Monday's talks, admits its wrong policies in Iraq, decides to change them and accepts its responsibilities," Mottaki said.

The Baghdad talks will offer a very rare one-on-one forum between the two countries since they broke off formal relations after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. The agenda is expected to be limited to Iraqi affairs, without spilling over into the nuclear impasse between Iran and the West.

The talks come against the backdrop of five Iranians held by U.S. troops for more than three months, after their January capture in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.

U.S. authorities said the five were members of Iran's elite Quds Force, accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Tehran has claimed they were part of a government liaison office and has demanded their release.

For its part, Iran has arrested a number of Iranian-Americans in recent months, accusing them of seeking to topple the ruling establishment.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, has been held at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since early May and charged with seeking to topple the government in Tehran. She traveled to Iran in December to visit her 93-year-old mother but was stopped when she headed to the airport to leave on Dec. 30 by knife-wielding men in masks.

She was interrogated extensively and, earlier this month, imprisoned. The Iranian government this week announced she was being charged with setting up a network to overthrow the Islamic establishment.

Other Iranian-Americans have also been prohibited from leaving Iran in recent months, including journalist Parnaz Azima, who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda.

Ali Shakeri, a founding board member at the University of California, Irvine's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, and Kian Tajbakhsh, consultant working for George Soros' Open Society Institute, are two other Iranian-Americans who have been prevented from leaving Iran.

Another American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, disappeared in March after going to Iran's resort island of Kish, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Saturday's Iranian statement followed reports that U.S. President George W. Bush has authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to launch a new covert action to destabilize the Iranian government.

Iranian officials have repeatedly raised concerns that Washington could incite members of Iran's many ethnic and religious minorities against the Shiite-led government in Tehran.

Although the US has denied such reports, it has launched several Iran-related initiatives, including establishing offices for Iranian affairs in Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates, and committing US$75 million to promoting democracy in Iran.

Iran numerous minorities have generally been quiet, with little overt show of opposition to the government, but there have been worrisome signs lately.

Fierce clashes broke out last May between Iranian police and Azeris in the northwestern city of Tabriz, after a cartoon in a state-run newspaper suggested the Turkic Azeris -- Iran's largest minority, making up about a quarter of Iran's 70 million people -- were stupid.

A series of bomb attacks in the past two years in Khuzestan, the center of Iran's Arab minority, killed several people. The Iranian government blamed the bombings on Britain and United States, which denied any involvement.

U.S.-Iranian tensions have also increased after Pentagon moved two aircraft carriers and seven other ships into the Persian Gulf in a show of force.