An alleged spy cell dismantled last week in Saudi Arabia had "direct links" to Iran's intelligence services, the kingdom's interior ministry said on Tuesday.
"Preliminary investigations and physical evidence that has been collected as well as the defendants' statements on this case have all revealed direct links between this cell and Iranian intelligence services," a ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the official SPA news agency.
"These elements had regularly received sums of money in return for information and documents on important installations during the spy operation in the interest of these services," it said.
On March 19, the interior ministry in Riyadh said authorities had arrested 16 Saudis, an Iranian and a Lebanese citizen in four regions including Eastern Province, where the Sunni-ruled kingdom's Shiite minority is concentrated.
But Iranian media reported on Sunday that the Shiite-dominated Islamic republic has denied any link to the suspected spy cell.
"Investigations are still ongoing with members of this cell and legal procedures will be taken against them," said the Saudi statement.
Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council have strained ties with Iran which they suspect of supporting Shiite opposition protests in GCC member Bahrain, which like its partners is Sunni-ruled.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, the suspects were found in Mecca, Medina, Riyadh and Eastern Province – where the country’s Shi’ite minority is concentrated.
The General Intelligence Presidency and the Saudi interior ministry caught the men in a joint operation, said the report, adding the ministry “received information on Saudis and expats spying for another country.”
The men were collecting data on “vital installation,” said the state news agency.
In an interview with Al Arabiya, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said most of those arrested were from one sect, adding that they were spying for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Among those involved is a doctor and another is a Shi’ite cleric,” he said. “Others were working at [the Saudi oil company] Aramco.”
There are an estimated two million Shi’ites in the Sunni-dominated kingdom of about 27.5 million people.
Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign ministry denied on Sunday the alleged accusation Saudi Arabia made of the country’s involvement in the linked group of alleged spies.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, denied that an Iranian national was involved in the alleged spying and called the allegations a “repetitive scenario,” according to Iran’s English-language Press TV on Sunday.
“Raising such baseless issues at the media level is merely for domestic consumption,” he said, according to Press TV.