TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's Intelligence Ministry claimed Saturday that it has arrested at least 30 people allegedly linked to a CIA-run spy network in accusations that also could spill over into the country's deepening political power struggles.
The announcement on the alleged spy ring gave no further details and appear part of Iran's frequent claims of Western and Israel interference. But the Intelligence Ministry also is at the heart of a messy political showdown and could seek to boost its credentials as a front-line defender of the country.
Last month, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced out the intelligence minister as part of government infighting, but the minister was immediately reinstated by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It touched off a high-level battle that included Ahmadinejad boycotting Cabinet sessions and Khamenei's loyalists warning Ahmadinejad he was on dangerous ground by challenging the ruling system.
Hard-liners have since launched pinpoint strikes aimed at weakening Ahmadinejad and his allies before next year's parliament elections and the vote for his successor in 2013. The latest apparent blow was reported Saturday after a court ordered a four-year political ban on one of his vice presidents.
The alleged spy ring could add another level of political intrigue.
In a statement read on state TV, Iran's secret service said its agents uncovered activities of a CIA-run espionage network that sought to recruit Iranian spies through U.S. diplomatic missions that include the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Turkey.
The report didn't provide further details, but claimed the recruits had been asked to spy on Iran's research institutes, universities, nuclear programs and other sites. Iranian authorities occasionally announce the arrest of people with alleged ties to foreign intelligence agencies, particularly the U.S., Britain and Israel. There was no immediate comment by Washington.
In the political upheaval, Iran's Administrative Justice Court issued a four-year ban on government service against Hamid Baqaei, the vice president for executive affairs.
Details of the ruling were not made public, but the conservative news website alef.ir reported that Baqaei has been convicted of "numerous violations." Baqaei confirmed the verdict during a press conference. But the semi-official Fars news agency said he refused to elaborate on the ruling.
Authorities have arrested up to 25 people loyal to Ahmadinejad and his close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei in recent weeks and blocked half a dozen websites allied to them.
Reports posted on Iranian opposition websites claim Mashaei and Baqaei have been summoned for questioning twice in recent days by Iran's intelligence services to respond questions on financial and security matters. Iranian officials have made no comment on the reports.
Baqaei is among eight vice presidents in the government and a close ally of Mashaei, who is Ahmadinejad's chief of staff.
Mashaei has been accused by hard-liners of heading a "deviant current" that seeks to undermine the ruling system and shape politics after Ahmadinejad's term expires. Earlier this week, an ultra-conservative publication urged for Mashaei's arrest.
Mashaei also is despised by hard-liners for views that elevate the values of pre-Islamic Persia and his statements suggesting Iran can oppose Israel's government but can be friendly with the Israeli people.
Pressures has intensified after the president's spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, said last week that Ahmadinejad was under a "spell" from Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son.