Tensions are running high in the Middle East in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, claimed Israeli agents were planning to attack US forces in Iraq to provide US President Donald Trump with a pretext for striking Iran.
Just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of Iran’s charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also warned his country would respond forcefully to any provocations.
Today, we have no problem, concern or apprehension toward encountering any powers. We will give our final words to our enemies on the battlefield.
Israeli military leaders are likewise preparing for potential Iranian retaliation over the November assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — an act Tehran blames on the Jewish state.
Both the US and Israel have reportedly deployed submarines to the Persian Gulf in recent days. (The USS Georgia is notably armed with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.) The US has also flown nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the region in a show of force.
And in another worrying sign, the acting US defence secretary, Christopher Miller, announced over the weekend the US would not withdraw the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its strike group from the Middle East — a swift reversal from the Pentagon’s earlier decision to send the ship home.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like nothing more than action by Iran that would draw in US forces before Trump leaves office this month and President-elect Joe Biden takes over. It would not only give him the opportunity to become a tough wartime leader, but also help to distract the media from his corruption charges.
Any American military response against Iran would also make it much more difficult for Biden to establish a working relationship with Iran and potentially resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
It’s likely in any case the Biden administration will have less interest in getting much involved in the Middle East — this is not high on the list of priorities for the incoming administration. However, a restoration of the Iranian nuclear agreement in return for the lifting of US sanctions would be welcomed by Washington’s European allies.
This suggests Israel could be left to run its own agenda in the Middle East during the Biden administration.
One of Israel’s key strategic policies is also to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapon state. Israel is the only nuclear weapon power in the Middle East and is determined to keep it that way.
While Iran claims its nuclear program is only intended for peaceful purposes, Tehran probably believes realistically (like North Korea) that its national security can only be safeguarded by possession of a nuclear weapon.
In recent days, Tehran announced it would begin enriching uranium to 20% as quickly as possible, exceeding the limits agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal.
This is a significant step and could prompt an Israeli strike on Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear facility. Jerusalem contemplated doing so nearly a decade ago when Iran previously began enriching uranium to 20%.
Iran’s nuclear program began in the 1950s, ironically with US assistance as part of the “Atoms for Peace” program. Western cooperation continued until the 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-Western shah of Iran. International nuclear cooperation with Iran was then suspended, but the Iranian program resumed in the 1980s.
After years of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (known as the P5+1), together with the European Union.
The JCPOA tightly restricted Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, this breakthrough soon fell apart with Trump’s election.
In April 2018, Netanyahu revealed Iranian nuclear program documents obtained by Mossad, claiming Iran had been maintaining a covert weapons program. The following month, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and a re-imposition of American sanctions.
Iran initially said it would continue to abide by the nuclear deal, but after the Soleimani assassination last January, Tehran abandoned its commitments, including any restrictions on uranium enrichment.
Israel, meanwhile, has long sought to disrupt its adversaries’ nuclear programs through its “preventative strike” policy, also known as the “Begin Doctrine”.
In 1981, Israeli aircraft struck and destroyed Iraq’s atomic reactor at Osirak, believing it was being constructed for nuclear weapons purposes. And in 2007, Israeli aircraft struck the al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria for the same reason.
Starting in 2007, Mossad also apparently conducted an assassination program to impede Iranian nuclear research. Between January 2010 and January 2012, Mossad is believed to have organised the assassinations of four nuclear scientists in Iran. Another scientist was wounded in an attempted killing.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the killings.
Iran is suspected to have responded to the assassinations with an unsuccessful bomb attack against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok in February 2012. The three Iranians convicted for that attack were the ones recently exchanged for the release of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from an Iranian prison.
The Mossad assassination program was reportedly suspended under pressure from the Obama administration to facilitate the Iran nuclear deal. But there seems little doubt the assassination of Fakhrizadeh was organised by Mossad as part of its ongoing efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.
Fakhrizadeh is believed to have been the driving force behind covert elements of Iran’s nuclear program for many decades.
The timing of his killing was perfect from an Israeli perspective. It put the Iranian regime under domestic pressure to retaliate. If it did, however, it risked a military strike by the truculent outgoing Trump administration.
It’s fortunate Moore-Gilbert was whisked out of Iran just before the killing, as there’s little likelihood Iran would have released a prisoner accused of spying for Israel (even if such charges were baseless) after such a blatant assassination had taken place in Iran.
Where does all this leave us now? Much will depend on Iran’s response to what it sees (with some justification) as Israeli and US provocation.
The best outcome would be for no obvious Iranian retaliation or military action despite strong domestic pressure for the leadership to act forcefully. This would leave the door open for Biden to resume the nuclear deal, with US sanctions lifted under strict safeguards to ensure Iran is not able to maintain a covert weapons program.
Canberra policymakers will be conducting a root-and-branch reassessment of Australia’s foreign policy following Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election and ahead of an incoming Democrat administration.
Top of the list of items for review will be a leaden-footed China policy. Chinese trade reprisals for perceived Australian slights are doing real harm to Australia’s economic interests.
However, there are other areas of concern that demand attention in anticipation of Joe Biden’s presidency.
High on this agenda will be Middle East policy, which has suffered from the Trump administration’s transactional approach to a region in which America surrendered its traditional “honest broker” role in favour of an “Israel-first” approach.
US Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken might say, as he did at a Hudson Institute event earlier this year, that “I think we would be doing less not more in the Middle East”.
However, in the world’s most volatile region, history shows this aspiration is easier said than realised. Successive US administrations have endeavoured to pull back from the Middle East. Circumstances conspire to make this difficult.
From an Australian perspective, a Biden administration will inevitably shift the tone of America’s responses to Middle East challenges. This includes attitudes to the Palestinians.
Biden will not be showing the same tolerance for Israel’s settlement expansion as his predecessor, nor would he countenance unilateral Israeli annexation of territories under occupation.
The new administration will return to a two-state formula in its approach to Middle East peacemaking. This is a phrase that was sidelined during the Trump administration.
Canberra policymakers will need to be agile as these shifts work their way through American Middle East policy, which will be less ideological and more focused on what might be described as core principles.
These principles will involve greater emphasis on human rights. This is not good news for serial human rights-abusing countries such as Saudi Arabia, or Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians, for that matter.
Climate issues will weigh, too. This will be awkward for laggards on climate like Saudi Arabia.
A Biden administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view of inroads Russia and Turkey have made in the Middle East. Both countries have factored themselves into regional calculations in ways not apparent when Biden served as vice-president in the Obama administration.
Moscow and Ankara are now significant regional players down into the Gulf and west to North Africa in their extraterritorial meddling in fractured states such as Libya.
Regional architecture is vastly more complex and, if possible, more challenging than it was four years ago.
This brings us, inevitably, to Iran.
Biden has made clear that among his early foreign policy priorities will be to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union.
An agreement to forestall an Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability was the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.
Trump irresponsibly abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.
In a September 13 essay on CNN.com, Biden said:
If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.
In the process, the US would lift crippling oil sanctions imposed by Trump. These have done considerable damage to Iran’s economy.
However, debate on rejoining the JCPOA without concessions from Iran will be fraught.
A Biden administration would come under considerable pressure to renegotiate aspects of the JCPOA after rejoining. This would include an extension of the original 15-year moratorium on Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear device.
US negotiators would be expected to pressure Iran to wind back its support for regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Washington would also seek to curb Iran’s exports of precision guided missiles to allies in the region and further afield.
Tehran has said such issues would not be on the table in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. These are highly complex matters.
What does make sense are indications a Biden administration would seek to involve other interested parties in a renegotiated JCPOA.
Biden’s foreign policy team has been talking about adding regional players like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This would certainly help address nuclear proliferation concerns.
In an interview with the New York Times this month, Biden warned of the risks of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the event that Iran acquires a breakout nuclear capability.
The last goddam thing we need in that part of the world is a build-up of nuclear capability.
Canberra will not have issues with this approach.
Australia’s response to the Trump administration’s abandonment of the JCPOA was cautious. The government conducted a review of Australia’s support and then quietly shelved any objections it might have had.
In any case, Australia hardly rates as anything more than a bystander, albeit one that has maintained diplomatic representation in Tehran since the days of the shah.
This has been useful, as was demonstrated recently by the role Australia’s ambassador in Tehran played in the release of Australian-UK researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert from a two-year incarceration.
With Australia’s trading relationship with China so stressed, further developing existing markets and seeking new opportunities will be a preoccupation.
While Australia’s trade with the Middle East is relatively small, it is significant. Two-way trade with the region, mostly in the Gulf, amounts to about 2.5% of total trade. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the most prospective markets for Australian goods and services.
The Gulf region is also home to four of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. At A$11 billion, the UAE’s investment in Australia is worth noting.
An Australian review of Middle East policy will inevitably involve assessments of what a Biden administration will mean for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has announced it will draw down its troop presence from the current 4,500 to 2,500 by early 2021. This follows a “peace agreement” with the Taliban struck in February.
Biden has been agnostic on Afghanistan. He was a dissenting voice in the Obama administration against a surge in troops in 2008-2009, but lost that argument.
He is thought likely to favour retaining a small, residual counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan. On his record, he would be most reluctant to increase numbers.
In Australia’s case, its combat troops have long gone. It retains a small training contingent with the Afghan army. This is likely to remain the case under present circumstances.
Finally, in October, Canberra made an important decision about its role in the Middle East. This received little attention at the time.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced Australia would end its naval presence in the Gulf, where the navy had been conducting patrols.
As part of its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Reynolds said “an increasingly challenging strategic environment” was “placing greater demand on ADF resources closer to home”.
Given China’s continued rise, that would seem to be an understatement.
Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s release from an Iranian prison after more than two years’ detention is certainly a welcome development.
However, the circumstances raise some uncomfortable questions for Australian and Western diplomats related to Iran’s penchant for using hostage-taking as a bargaining chip for the release of its own citizens detained abroad for suspected or proven crimes, including terrorism.
There seems little doubt Moore-Gilbert was released as part of a prisoner exchange. Iranian state media has shown pictures of the academic with Australian embassy officials in Tehran, juxtaposed with film of three Iranian men being welcomed by Iranian officials, apparently at Tehran’s airport.
The Iranian media says she was exchanged for an Iranian “economic activist” and two Iranian citizens, who had been detained “abroad on trumped-up charges”. The report does not name the men.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given a carefully worded statement in response to questions about a prisoner swap.
If other people have been released in other places, they are the decisions of the sovereign governments. There are no people who have been held in Australia who have been released.
That may be true as far as Australia is concerned. But a report by The New York Times, quoting Iranian social media channels associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), identifies the three Iranians as Saeed Moradi, Mohammad Khazaei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh.
The three had been detained in Thailand since 2012 on charges of planning to plant bombs in Bangkok and assassinate Israeli diplomats there. One of those men had reportedly lost his legs when a bomb he was carrying exploded prematurely.
In a similar context, the release last year of two Australians being held in Iran, Jolie King and Mark Firkin, coincided with an Iranian research student at the University of Queensland, Reza Dehbashi Kivi, being permitted by Australian officials to return to his home country.
Dehbashi Kivi had allegedly been seeking to export radar equipment for detecting stealth planes in contravention of US sanctions. The ABC reported at the time the US was seeking his extradition.
The Australian government is depicting Moore-Gilbert’s release as a win for quiet diplomacy in assisting Australians arrested abroad.
There is no doubt a calm and measured approach is the most effective way of resolving knotty consular cases – even when the charges levelled against our citizens seem highly doubtful, as was the case with Moore-Gilbert.
This approach worked with the release of journalist Peter Greste from detention in Egypt in 2015, although there is no evidence of any prisoner exchange or other quid pro quo in that case.
In the Moore-Gilbert case, the apparent prisoner exchange would have required the agreement of the Thai government, and possibly clearing the arrangement with Israel as well, given the Iranians held in Thailand had reportedly been plotting attacks against Israeli interests. Quite an effort for “quiet diplomacy”.
Australians travelling abroad are constantly reminded they are subject to the laws of the country they are visiting. If an Australian is detained abroad, the most consular officials can usually do is ensure that person is treated fairly and humanely in accordance with local laws.
Thumping the table and making demands, even if the charges seem totally outrageous, is usually totally counter-productive.
The situation for Australians who get into trouble in Iran is particularly fraught. Australia’s relations with Iran are tense at normal times. The Iranian security authorities see Australia as close not only to the US, but to Israel, and are therefore suspicious of Australians.
If an Australian is a dual-Iranian national, Iranian law treats him or her as an Iranian citizen, further complicating the task of consular officials when individuals are detained.
Iran has reason to be particularly suspicious of US and Israeli hostility at the moment.
In July, there were reports of a series of explosions at sites linked Iran’s missile and nuclear programs.
Media reports suggested Israel was responsible. Israel has a history of unattributed attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, including use of the Stuxnet computer virus, which US officials have confirmed was developed in partnership with the US.
Moreover, under the Trump administration, the US has had a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran’s economy, which has drastically curtailed Iran’s oil exports. Israel’s Defence Forces have also been instructed to prepare for the possibility Trump may order a military strike against Iran in the final days of his presidency, according to Axios.
Complicating Australia’s relationship with Iran even further are the different power centres in Iran.
Iran’s IRGC has the power to overrule all civilian authorities, including President Hassan Rouhani. It was significant that Moore-Gilbert was arrested when seeking to leave Iran after attending an academic conference to which she had been formally invited. This implied official approval to enter and leave the country.
Diplomatic and consular officials in Tehran must also deal with the Iranian Foreign Ministry in cases involving detained foreigners. The foreign ministry is often powerless in cases in which the IRGC has an interest.
So Moore-Gilbert’s release at this time is remarkably fortuitous, particularly as Iran currently holds more than 10 Westerners or dual-national citizens captive.
However, if it is confirmed that the deal is a direct prisoner exchange, criticism here and among our allies that Australia has aided and abetted Iran’s hostage taking strategy is bound to grow.
Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified in early October over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus at the centre of a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades.
The South Caucasus is sandwiched between Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Out of these three regional powers, Turkey’s vocal and military support for Azerbaijan has bolstered Baku’s confidence to refuse mediation in the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow – which has historically been an important mediator in this conflict – is also committed to protect Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional security alliance.
Iran, however, has adopted an official neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. It’s doing the same today, with Iranian officials stating they are working on a peace plan.
The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, resulting in Azerbaijan losing 20% of its territory to Armenia.
Tehran made an extensive effort to broker a ceasefire in 1992, only to see it violated by the Armenian militia within hours, discrediting Iran’s role as a mediator.
Although another ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1994, numerous rounds of negotiations, as well as regional and international mediation, most notably by the OSCE Minsk group, have not led to peace – or even a partial resolution of the dispute. While conflict has repeatedly flared up along the front line since then, for example in 2016, the current escalation, which began on September 27, is by far the most serious.
Iran is in no real position to mediate now, particularly given its own turbulent relationship with Baku, as well as international sensitivity over Iran’s increased regional influence. The only reason Iran repeats its offer of mediation is to confirm to Armenia and Azerbaijan – and their respective ethnic minorities and supporters inside Iran – that Tehran remains neutral. Such neutrality is important for Iran’s own domestic stability.
Until the early 19th century, Georgia, Armenia and the territories of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known then as Arran) were under Persian control. Iran then lost these territories to Russia following its defeats in two wars.
The 1918 collapse of Russia’s Tsarist empire and the weakening of Moscow’s hold on Arran provided the opportunity for nationalist parties. Supported by the Ottoman Empire, they created the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1920.
While, prior to 1918, there had been no political entity on the north of the Aras river with the name Azerbaijan, the people of Arran shared Turkic ethnicity and language with those in the north-western provinces of Iran, historically called Eastern and Western Azarbaijan.
This makes today’s 9 million population of Azerbaijan brethren of 16% of Iran’s population – another 20 million people. Iran is also home to more than 100,000 highly respected and well-integrated Armenians. They have strong and at times useful connections to the global Armenian diaspora, which has influential lobbies in western countries, especially the US.
With such an ethnic mix, any official support by Tehran for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict could deepen the social faultlines to the point of conflict. It would also add to the various social dilemmas that the Iranian state is already facing, arising from economic hardship caused by US sanctions, rampant corruption and mismanagement, as well as public dissatisfaction with the state’s repressive policies.
At a time when social cohesion is in tatters, taking sides could easily result in widening ethnic divisions that could put Iran’s political and territorial integrity at risk.
As I have explained in my own research, with a shared Shia religion and civilisational background, Iran could have been Azerbaijan’s natural ally – especially as Armenia is a non-Muslim country. But Azerbaijan’s constant expansionist approach towards Iranian territories since its independence makes such an alliance highly unlikely, no matter who rules Iran.
Azerbaijan has made significant investments
in promoting separatist ideas among Turkic Iranians and maintained an appetite for integrating the Iranian provinces of Eastern and Western Azarbaijan into the republic. This has been one of the main reasons why Iran’s ruling Shia theocracy is reluctant to take Azerbaijan’s side, despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is also Shia.
Baku’s partnerships with the US and Israel, as well as its secular government with an adamant resistance to any influence from Iran, also increase the Islamic Republic’s hesitance to support Azerbaijan.
Armenia, on the other hand, has not demonstrated any expansionist policies towards Iranian territories. Nor has it developed relations with Iran’s nemeses – the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to a degree that undermines its cordial relations with Tehran. Still, it would be counter-intuitive for Iran’s Shia theocracy to overtly ally with a Christian republic against another Shia majority country.
This is why the best option for protecting Iran’s security and stability is for Tehran to maintain its neutral stance while supporting international initiatives to resolve the conflict.
History tells us the month of October in a US presidential election year has a tendency to produce an unforeseen moment that may, or may not, have an impact on the election itself.
William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager in 1980, is credited with coining the phrase “October surprise”. It referred to the concern Tehran would announce, on the cusp of the election, the release of American hostages seized after the overthrow of the shah of Iran.
In 2020, it would be hard to top an “October surprise” that resulted in a president falling ill with a virus he frequently dismissed and downplayed, then did little about while it ravaged his country.
But if we speculate on a possible additional surprise, some sort of mishap in the Persian Gulf might figure.
This is far from saying an incident in the Gulf is foretold, but recent developments indicate the temperature is rising at a moment when America is preparing to impose unilateral economic sanctions on any party that sells armaments to Iran.
A United Nations arms embargo, imposed in 2006, is set to expire on October 18 under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. That is in less than a fortnight.
Washington had sought to extend the arms embargo via a UN Security Council resolution, but was rebuffed by, among others, signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Russia and China.
The US now seems likely to fully impose unilateral sanctions on Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” approach to dealing with the Islamic state. It is not clear whether Russia and China will fall into line.
Russia, for example, has extensive military-to-military ties to Iran. Along with China, it has conducted joint naval exercises in the region with Iran’s navy.
Moscow also has its eyes on possible naval base facilities on Iran’s Indian Ocean coast, just as the Russians have used their relationship with Syria to secure a warm water port in the Mediterranean.
So the Gulf region is emerging not simply as a flashpoint in US-Iran tensions, but a focus of big-power rivalry in an era in which Russia is seeking to extend its influence deep into the Middle East.
This is driven partly by President Vladimir Putin’s desire to restore Russia’s footprint in the region, after the former Soviet Union was effectively banished but for a few toeholds. It is also partly driven by a perception in Moscow that US domination is eroding.
The oil-rich Gulf has become a kaleidoscope of shifting ambitions and alliances. Recent announcements by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain they were moving towards normalising relations with Israel are significant pieces in this kaleidoscope.
In this mix is Iran’s conspicuous efforts to increase its strategic leverage over the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf. On any day, 20% of the world’s tradeable oil passes through the area.
The conservative American Enterprise Institute has this to say about Iran’s efforts to strengthen its ability to apply a chokehold to what is arguably the most important and most vulnerable stretch of water globally:
The Islamic Republic is laying the groundwork for greater Iranian influence around the strait […] by expanding its military footprint and building key infrastructure in the area. Tehran’s efforts reflect contingency planning for a larger potential conflict with the US and its Gulf partners since tensions have spiked in recent months.
In the past few years, Iran has invested heavily in its ability to conduct an asymmetric naval campaign against a US naval presence in the region. This includes heavy investment in cruise missile technologies.
Iran is also building a 1,000-kilometre pipeline from oil-producing Bushehr province to its Bandar-e Jask naval base outside the Strait of Hormuz. This would enable it to export oil if tanker traffic through the strait is shut down.
The AEI report concludes that tensions may well rise after the UN arms embargo expires this month as the US seeks to maintain its “maximum pressure” campaign. This would extend to sanctions threats to countries like Russia and China that might be tempted to transfer military technology to Iran.
In all of this, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is more than a sideshow. Russia wants Iran to stay out of the conflict on its southern boundaries. A price for this might be greater Russian military assistance to Iran as it gears up for possible conflict with the US, Israel and Sunni Arab states.
Princeton University research fellow Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian ambassador to Germany and nuclear negotiator, speculated in September that if electoral prospects for the Republicans looked bad in the weeks before the November 3 election, Trump might be tempted to stage an “October surprise” in the form of a military operation.
Mousavian reflected a view in Tehran that the US assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in January was part of a broader US plan to effect regime change in Iran.
In a region awash with all sorts of conspiracy theories, it matters less whether these theories have merit than that, in a hair-trigger environment, people believe them.
Adding to speculation about a possible game plan that might involve some sort of military confrontation, Washington has vastly increased its firepower in the Gulf.
In September, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier transited the Strait of Hormuz accompanied by guided-missile cruisers USS Princeton and USS Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett.
This is the first time in about a year the US has deployed a carrier battle group in the Gulf at a time when tensions are on the rise.
The US now has enormous firepower in the Gulf on top of its existing deployments of 60,000-80,000 troops in the region. It also has base facilities in Bahrain, headquarters of the Fifth Fleet, and Qatar, which houses the forward headquarters of the US Air Forces Central Command.
None of this is meant to suggest there is anything inevitable, or even likely, about conflict in the Gulf. On the other hand, these are tense moments in an American election season like few others.
In any threat scenario, an incident in the Gulf cannot be discounted.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a Middle East expert from the University of Melbourne, has now been held by the Iranian government for almost two years.
She was arrested in September 2018 and then convicted of spying and sentenced to ten years’ jail. She has denied all allegations against her, and the Australian government rejects the charges as baseless and politically motivated.
Until recently, Kylie has been in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin prison, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But this week, she was transferred to Qarchak, which is notorious for its brutal treatment of prisoners.
Kylie is a colleague and a friend. For the past two years, I have been keeping silent in the hopes a quiet diplomatic approach would secure her freedom.
But it is hard to overstate how horrific this week’s development is. Australia needs to do more.
I am a Middle East analyst, who specialises in the Persian Gulf. In fact, Kylie and I first met because we both work on state-society relations in Bahrain. I can see, examining the treatment of other foreign political prisoners in Iran, that Kylie has been treated exceptionally poorly.
Media reports indicate Kylie was able to speak to her family about a month ago and Australian diplomatic staff have also been in contact.
However the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s statement this week – that they are “urgently seeking further consular access to her at this new location” and “hold Iran responsible for Dr Moore-Gilbert’s safety and well-being” – suggests Australia was not consulted before her transfer to Qarchak.
On Wednesday, The Guardian reported a recording of Kylie out of Qarchak. Speaking Persian, she says:
I can’t eat anything. I feel so very hopeless […] I am so depressed.
Is this all two years of diplomacy has bought us?
I am not speaking out now to challenge this quiet diplomatic approach regarding Iran. I am speaking because I believe more public pressure must be placed on the Australian government to ensure it is living up to its own rhetoric.
DFAT claims Kylie’s case is “one of the Australian government’s highest priorities, including for our Embassy officials in Tehran”.
But the amount of secrecy involved in the process means we cannot know if this is true.
Even though the situation is sensitive, there are avenues Australia can pursue on behalf of Kylie.
Based on my analysis of publicly reported cases, around one in three foreign political prisoners in Iran over the past five years have been released via a prisoner swap. This reportedly includes Australian tourists Jolie King and Mark Firkin who were arrested in Iran last year.
Based on publicly available knowledge, Australia does not currently hold any Iranian prisoners. However our key ally, the United States, does.
It must be acknowledged that the politics around this case are very complicated. Relations between Iran and the US and far from friendly – especially after the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
There is another problem, too.
Despite Australia maintaining constructive relationships with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, they are not the key to securing Kylie’s freedom.
The Iranian political system is fragmented and parts of the army, judiciary and intelligence agencies report to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Rouhani and Khamenei’s relationship is also poor and Khamenei’s influence has grown since Kylie was first incarcerated. Iran will hold presidential elections in 2021 and as Khamenei seeks to secure Iran’s future, he may attempt to empower a more hardline president.
This means Australia must think outside the box to secure Kylie’s release. The solution to this crisis is undoubtedly a diplomatic one – and we clearly need to spend more diplomatic capital than we’re already using to fix it.
But it will become more difficult if we do not put sufficient resources into her release before the next presidential election.
COVID-19 also makes Kylie’s situation more urgent. My assessment is the Australian government must urgently push for Kylie’s immediate transfer out of Qarchak prison, to a safe location where her consular access and health can be protected.
There is precedent for foreign detainees to be transferred to house arrest in embassies while cases are resolved.
Beyond the harrowing personal situation, Kylie’s case is also relevant to all of us. It fits a wider pattern, where the space for academic research is being narrowed in authoritarian states. This is occurring not just in Iran but in countries such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
If this research cannot be conducted, or if the Australian government fails to protect its researchers who need to do fieldwork in these countries, this allows authoritarian states to silence criticism.
And then set the narrative about their internal politics as they see fit.