IRAN has sentenced to death a former US marine found guilty of working for the CIA, in a move likely to deepen the crisis in relations between the US and Iran.
The Iranian Revolutionary Court claims that the former marine, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati (28), who is a dual Iranian-US citizen, was sent on an espionage mission to Iran after receiving special training in Afghanistan and Iran. It said he was given the death sentence for "co-operating with a hostile country and spying for the CIA".
Hekmati's father denied to a Western news agency that his son was a spy and said he had previously worked as an Arabic translator for the Marines before entering Iran four months ago to visit his grandmothers. He said earlier that his son was working in Qatar for a company "that served the marines", but gave no other details.
The White House denied Hekmati was a spy and said it was trying to verify reports of the death sentence. This was announced on Iranian radio shortly after the US imposed sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank to stifle its oil trade and the European Union announced that it would impose an embargo on Iranian oil imports.
The court's verdict is the latest in a series of tit-for-tat actions and threats by Iran and its adversaries that could escalate into a military confrontation.
The struggle between Iran and the US, which has gone on since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is deepening because of Western and Arab support for the overthrow of the Syrian government, Iran's most important foreign ally. Its fall would be a serious blow to Iran.
For its part, Iran is increasing its influence in Iraq in the wake of the departure of the last US troops in December.
Hekmati has 20 days to appeal to Iran's Supreme Court. In a video confession broadcast on December 18, he said the CIA sent him to Iran to gain the confidence of the authorities and infiltrate Iran's Intelligence Ministry by giving information, some of which was inaccurate.
Iran does not recognise dual citizenship, making foreign citizens of Iranian origin vulnerable when visiting the country.