Iran has arrested several foreign nationals including the deputy head of the UK embassy in Tehran, Iran's state television reported Wednesday night.
The government media say that the Revolutionary Guard's Intelligence Organization "identified and arrested" the foreigners who were taking soil samples in the central Iranian desert, apparently in separate incidents.
Giles Whitaker, the deputy head of the United Kingdom's mission in Iran, was visiting the Shahdad desert near the Iranian city of Kerman along with his family when he was detained and expelled because of "taking samples of soil from a prohibited area", the Iranian state TV's report said.
The report said the British diplomat was visiting the restricted area during military drills by the IRGC's Aerospace Force in a region nearby, and was spotted by IRGC drones.
While the report by the state TV claims the British diplomat has been expelled "from the city" after apologizing, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency says he is being expelled from the country.
The UK Foreign Office told Iran International that the "reports of the arrest of a British diplomat in Iran are completely false."
In addition to the British diplomat, several other researchers and scientists have also been arrested, according to the state TV report.
The other detainees include Maciej Walczak, a researcher at the Department of Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology at Nicolaus Copernicus University, Marcin Switoniak, a professor in Department of Soil Science at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, and Charzynski Przemysław, another professor of Soil Sciences, the report said.
The IRGC also claims it has arrested the spouse of the Austrian cultural attaché to Tehran.
The report aired by Iran’s state TV claims Israel is sending these people to Iran in order to “steal” information from the Islamic Republic and once again open the possible military dimensions (PMD) case of Iran’s nuclear program.
Although it is not yet clear when these foreign nationals have been arrested on charges of espionage, this is the first publicly announced operation by the IRGC Intelligence after its former head Hossein Ta'eb was replaced by Mohammad Kazemi.
There have been a series of changes of top officials in IRGC intelligence in recent weeks after repeated killings and mysterious deaths of some of its officers and staff, that Iran has blamed on Israel.
These events have cast a shadow on the image the IRGC wants to project of efficiance and power to control events. The report about the arrest of a British dipolomat could be an attempt to show the IRGC is still in charge.
These are probably the latest cases of Iran arresting foreign nationals possibly to use them as hostage for leverage in its negotiations with other countries.
The announcement comes amid fierce debates over a prisoner swap treaty being reviewed by the Belgian parliament, whose opponents say it would not only result in the return of an Iranian convicted terrorist, Assadollah Assadi, from Belgium to Iran, but will embolden the regime in Tehran to further use its "hostage policy" as leverage for its malicious activities across the world.