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Suspected U.S. spies 'due to be' sentenced to death, Iran says

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By Ali Arouzi and Saphora Smith and Abigail Williams and Dan De Luce and Ken Dilanian and Eric Baculinao  with NBC News World News
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Flag of Iran.   -   Copyright  Jose Antonio Caravaca

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for several individuals accused of spying for the U.S., Iran's spokesman for the judiciary announced Tuesday.

Suspected U.S. spies affiliated with the Iranian military are due to be sentenced to death because of the "severity of their crimes," Iranian judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaili, said on state television.

Two other suspects who are also accused of spying for Washington but were not affiliated with the military have received "long" jail sentences, he added.

NBC News could not independently confirm the reports and the CIA said it had no comment. A State Department spokesperson said, "We cannot comment on matters of intelligence."

The announcement comes as tensions between Tehran and Washington continue to simmer. Iran's state-run news agency IRNA reported Monday that the country had breached the limit on the amount of enriched uranium it is permitted to hold under the 2015 nuclear deal. President Donald Trump, who pulled out of the nuclear deal last year, responded to Tehran's decision on Monday saying Iran was "playing with fire."

Esmaili did not elaborate on when the suspected spies had been arrested or on how many there are in custody. Iran said last year that it had arrested "tens of spies" in state bodies, many of whom were dual nationals, according to Reuters.

In June, Tehran said it had executed a former contract employee of the defence ministry aerospace body on charges of spying for the CIA, according to Iran's state-run MEHR News.

Esmaili added that Iranian intelligence services had identified U.S. spies operating around the globe and had informed its allies of suspected spies in their territories.

"One example is China who upon receiving the information from us arrested and executed the spies," he added. NBC News reached out to the Chinese Foreign Ministry but did not immediately receive a response.

This is not the first time Iran has made such claims. In April, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said Iran had identified 290 CIA agents across different countries, according to Iran's state-run Press TV.

Last year, Yahoo reported that from around 2009 to 2013 the U.S. intelligence community experienced intelligence failures originating in Iran that resulted in more than two dozen sources dying in China. NBC News could not independently confirm this report.

In February, a former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence agent who defected to Iran was charged with spying for the regime, revealing the identity of a U.S. intelligence officer and helping target her former colleagues, according to the Justice Department.

Arouzi reported from Tehran, Smith reported from London.