17 spies working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been captured and some of them sentenced to death by the Iranian government, deepening a crisis between the Islamic Republic and the West.

Iranian state television published images that it said showed the CIA officers who had been in touch with the suspected spies.

In a statement read on state television, the Ministry of Intelligence said 17 spies had been arrested in the 12 months to March 2019. Some have been sentenced to death, according to another report.

Such announcements are not unusual in Iran, and are often made for domestic consumption. But the timing suggests Tehran could harden its position in a stand-off with Western powers which has raised fears of a direct military confrontation.

In recent weeks the US has blamed Iran for attacks on shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil trade’s most important waterway, accusations Iran has denied. The US and Iran have each downed drones operated by the other side and on Friday Iran captured a British-registered tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran had previously warned it would respond to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4.

Iran announced in June that it had broken up an alleged CIA spy ring but it was unclear whether yesterday’s announcement was linked to the same case.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office has said she would chair a meeting of Britain’s emergency response committee early on Monday to discuss the tanker crisis, and the government was expected to announce its next steps in parliament.

As Britain weighed its next move, a recording emerged showing the Iranian military defied a British warship when it boarded and seized the Stena Impero, underscoring the challenges Britain faces responding. Experts say there are few obvious steps London can take at a time when the US has already imposed the maximum possible economic sanctions, banning all Iranian oil exports worldwide.

Washington imposed the sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, which had provided Iran access to world trade in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

European countries including Britain have been caught in the middle. They disagreed with the US decision to quit the nuclear deal but have so far failed to offer Iran another way to receive the deal’s promised economic benefits.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday that Japan wanted to make every effort to reduce tension between the US and Iran before responding to an expected US request to send its navy to safeguard strategic waters off Iran.

Japanese media have said Washington’s proposal to boost surveillance of vital Middle East oil shipping lanes off Iran and Yemen could be on the agenda during a visit to Tokyo this week by US national security adviser John Bolton.

“We have a long tradition of friendship with Iran and I’ve met with its president any number of times, as well as other leaders,” Abe told a news conference after his coalition’s victory in a Sunday election for parliament’s upper house.

“Before we make any decisions on what to do, Japan would like to make every effort to reduce tensions between Iran and the US.”

US President Donald Trump yesterday said: “The report of Iran capturing CIA spies is totally false. Zero truth. Just more lies and propaganda (like their shot-down drone) put out by a Religious Regime that is Badly Failing and has no idea what to do,” he wrote on Twitter.

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