US woman arrested in Iran as spy: Why the story may not have teeth

Iranian media have produced conflicting reports, none well sourced, on the alleged arrest of a US woman with a spying device in her teeth.

James Bond couldn’t have done it better. Which is why an unconfirmed 007-style story about Iran arresting an American woman with a microphone hidden in her teeth is grabbing headlines.

The report first emerged this week in the state-owned newspaper, Iran, which does not have a history of publishing truth-telling facts when it comes to alleged enemy spies.

Then on Thursday Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is tied to the Revolutionary Guard, weighed in with its own unsubstantiated report: “Iranian authorities announced” the detention one week ago of 55-year-old Hal Talayan, it claimed. The story was titled: “Iran arrests US spy.”

“Security forces discovered ‘espionage devices’ such as a microphone implanted in her teeth,” the report claimed of the arrest, which Fars stated took place while the “US woman” tried to enter Iran from Armenia without a visa.

“The detained spy asked the Iranian authorities not to return her to Armenia in fear of her life,” stated Fars.

But then later on Thursday, a state-run television channel offered a contradictory report, which seemed to dismiss the arrested-spy theory altogether.

“The American woman was not able to enter Iran,” the Arabic-language Al-Alam channel reported, according to Agence France-Presse. “She approached the border guards, but as she did not have a visa, she was not authorized to enter Iran. She was sent back to Armenia.”

The confusing stories appeared to weaken the likelihood of another American arrested in Iran and accused of spying. But top Iranian officials have frequently accused the US and some European “enemies” of waging “psychological war” against the Islamic Republic, and are known to have used their own tools of propaganda in reply.

The Fars report does not explicitly quote or name any Iranian authority, referring only to an “informed Iranian official.” Surprising, too, considering the weight and propaganda value of such an arrest – if in fact it happened – is that no mention has yet been made on Iran’s English-language PressTV channel or website, which has highlighted such cases in the past.

Fars reported that Ms. Talayan was being held on “charges of illegal entry and espionage” – the same accusations that were leveled against three younger Americans arrested in July 2009 for crossing illegally into Iran from Iraq. (Sarah Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September and allowed to leave Iran, but her fiancé Shane Bauer and friend Josh Fattal remain in prison in Tehran, awaiting trial after their Nov. 6 court date was pushed back indefinitely.)

The uncertainties prompted the EAWorldView website, which closely follows daily events in Iran, to urge caution.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I know you like a sensational story. And I know that the combination of spying and US-Iran confrontation is just too much to resist,” writes analyst Scott Lucas in a blog entry.

“Not every story about spying deserves to be treated with respect – have a look at our feature today on ‘Vulture Held in Saudi Arabia as Israeli Spy,’” writes Mr. Lucas, noting that the original source was a single unreliable newspaper. “There is no evidence that this event happened beyond the keyboard of the reporter – not even the Iranian government, for all its displays of foreign-supported sedition, is joining the claim.”

IN PICTURES: US hikers detained in Iran

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