Iran's Revolutionary Guard detains several foreigners, including Britain's second most senior envoy in Tehran, for alleged acts of espionage such as taking soil samples in restricted military areas, state media report.

Iran is accused of taking foreigners hostage to gain upper hand in nuclear talks with Western powers.
Iran is accused of taking foreigners hostage to gain upper hand in nuclear talks with Western powers. (Reuters)

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard forces have accused the deputy ambassador of the United Kingdom and other foreign diplomats in the country of "espionage" and taking soil samples from prohibited military zones.

The country's state-run IRNA news agency reported on Wednesday that the foreigners had been arrested, but did not elaborate on when. The UK Foreign Office swiftly denied that its diplomat was arrested, calling the report "completely false."

Iran's state TV ran footage purporting to show the foreigners collecting samples from the ground while under drone surveillance.

The accusations follow escalating tensions over a pickup in Tehran's arrests of foreigners and rapid advancement of its nuclear work, while talks to revive the landmark 2015 atomic accord remain at a standstill. 

Iran has detained a number of Europeans in recent months, including two French citizens and a Swedish tourist, as it seeks to gain leverage in negotiations.

The report also comes after Iran, in a rare move, replaced the Revolutionary Guard's longstanding intelligence chief.

The news outlets said the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, Giles Whitaker, and other foreigners faced "spying" charges after visiting various forbidden zones in the country while the Guard was carrying out missile tests.

"These spies were taking earth samples in Iran's central desert where the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace missile exercises were conducted," state TV said.

The semi-official Fars news agency, believed to be close to the Guard, claimed Whitaker was expelled from the area after offering authorities an apology.

READ MORE: Iran sentences French man to eight years in prison on spying charges

Espionage charges

The reports came as the British public was transfixed by the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who faced growing pressure to step down after defections from his Cabinet.

State TV broadcast a photo montage apparently showing Whitaker touring the southwestern desert collecting soil samples against the backdrop of eerie music.

"Even though there were signs in that area saying this was a forbidden area, he went further and took a sample and took a picture," the narrator said. 

"Intelligence agencies say that these people often pose as tourists, but are looking for military and missile sites to identify equipment and ammunition."

Iranian media also identified Maciej Walczak, a Polish scientist at Copernicus University in Poland, as one of the accused foreigners. It similarly said he took samples of soil, water and salt from a forbidden area during a missile test in the country's south.

The report added that the Guard's intelligence wing also detained the husband of Austria's cultural attache in Iran after he took soil samples in the country's northeast.

READ MORE: Iran says it arrested 17 CIA spies, some sentenced to death

Source: AP