LONDON (Reuters) – Iran said on Monday it had sentenced an Iranian woman to 10 years prison for spying for Britain, amid rising tension between the Islamic Republic and some Western countries over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Gholamhossein Esmaili, a judiciary spokesman, said on state television that the woman worked for the British Council cultural agency and was cooperating with Britain’s foreign intelligence service, but did not identify her.
A friend of the sentenced woman named her as Aras Amiri and said was arrested while on a visit to Tehran in March 2018. The friend told Reuters that Amiri, 33, was resident in Britain but did not have British nationality.
She had gone on trial recently and was waiting a verdict, according to the friend.
The British Foreign Office said it was “very concerned” at the reports. “We have not been able to confirm any further details at this stage and are urgently seeking further information,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Esmaili said the sentenced woman was a student in Britain before being recruited by the British Council to run its Iran desk, and was in charge of projects for “cultural infiltration” in Iran. He said the woman had been in custody for almost a year.
The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, working in arts and culture, the English language, education and civil society.
The Council told Reuters it did not have offices or representatives in Iran, and did no work in the country.
It also said “our colleague who was detained last year is not head of ‘the Iran desk’, (but rather) worked in Britain in a junior role to support and showcase the Iranian contemporary art scene to UK audiences”.
The arrest of Iranians accused of espionage has increased since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said last year there had been “infiltration” of Western agents in the country.
Iran has been increasingly at odds with Western countries since the United States withdrew a year ago from a deal Tehran signed with global powers in 2015 to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Britain is a signatory to the nuclear deal. Like other European signatories, it supports maintaining the deal.
The United States has ratcheted up sanctions against Iran this month, revoking waivers that had permitted some countries to continue buying Iranian oil. Tehran has responded by scaling back some curbs on its nuclear programme, although the steps it has taken so far stop short of violating the agreement.
(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich)