DUBAI, Nov 16 (Reuters) – France and Britain accused Iran of threatening their nationals on Wednesday after the Islamic Republic said French intelligence agents had been arrested during anti-government protests.
Tehran accuses Western adversaries of stoking the nationwide unrest ignited by the Sept. 16 death of young Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini whom morality police had arrested for allegedly flouting the Islamic dress code.
“People of other nationalities were arrested in the riots, some of whom played a big role,” Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi told state TV on Wednesday.
“There were elements from the French intelligence agency and they will be dealt with according to the law.”
France denied statements by Iran‘s interior ministry that it had arrested French intelligence officers and demanded the release of all of its citizens held in Iran.
At the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Indonesia, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters Iran was being increasingly aggressive “with its unacceptable hostage-taking”.
“I urge Iran to return to calm and a spirit of cooperation. I call on it to respect regional stability and also French citizens,” he added.
Paris says seven French nationals are detained in Iran.
Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy on Iran, said in Paris that it was time for countries to coordinate their response to citizens being detained in Iran for the purpose of “hostage-taking as bargaining chips and for political reasons”.
Amini’s death and the crackdown that followed have further isolated Iran, while its government struggles to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Since the nationwide protests began over two months ago, Iran has summoned several foreign ambassadors over comments regarding the unrest made by their officials.
Britain’s domestic spy agency head said Iran‘s intelligence services have tried on at least 10 occasions to kidnap or even kill British nationals or individuals based in the United Kingdom regarded by Tehran as a threat.
MI5 director general Ken McCallum said while at home Tehran was using violence to silence critics, its “aggressive intelligence services” were also threatening Britain directly.
McCallum said the Iranian intelligence services were “a sophisticated adversary” who sometimes operated using their own staff or courted others to work on their behalf, and sometimes were prepared to take “reckless action”.
Iran, which said Amini died due to pre-existing medical conditions, has accused Western states of trying to exploit the protests over her case to destabilise clerical rule in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Also on Wednesday, Iran‘s judiciary sentenced to death three anti-government protesters in Tehran on various charges such as “corruption on earth” and “waging war on God”, Iranian state media reported. The three can appeal.
They were accused of killing a police officer, torching a government building and spreading fear.
Of thousands of people arrested in Tehran and Karaj cities for taking part in protests, up to 19 face the death penalty, according to state media.
Wednesday saw a second day of strikes commemorating 2019 protests over fuel prices, which were crushed by security forces in the bloodiest crackdown in the history of the Islamic Republic.
The demonstrations have turned into a legitimacy crisis for the clerical elite, which took power after the 1979 revolution toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a secular monarch allied with the West.
Videos shared on social media on Wednesday showed shops closing in several cities. The Iranian Kurdish rights group Hengaw shared videos showing protesters gathered in memory of a man killed by security forces in the Kurdish town of Kamyaran.
It said security forces shot at protesters and injured at least 10 people.
(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom, additional reporting by John Irish in Parisa and Michael Holden in London; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Cawthorne)