Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released. But will a prisoner swap with Australia encourage more hostage-taking by Iran?



Iranian State Television/AP

Ian Parmeter, Australian National University

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.

Morrison would not speak directly about the prisoner swap to ensure the safety of any other Australians detained overseas.
Lukas Coch/AAP

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.




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I kept silent to protect my colleague and friend, Kylie Moore-Gilbert. But Australia’s quiet diplomatic approach is not working


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.

Quiet diplomacy usually works best

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.

Peter Greste waves to supporters after arriving in Australia following his release from an Egyptian prison.
Tertius Pickard/AP

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.

A fraught relationship

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.




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The Australian government needs to step up its fight to free Kylie Moore-Gilbert from prison in Iran


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.

A satellite image shows a damaged building after a fire and explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site in July.
Planet Labs Inc./AP

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.

Other Westerners still being detained

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.




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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.The Conversation

Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I kept silent to protect my colleague and friend, Kylie Moore-Gilbert. But Australia’s quiet diplomatic approach is not working



Abedin Taherkenareh/AAP

Jessie Moritz, Australian National University

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.

Portrait of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been detained in Iran for more than 680 days.
Department of Foreign Affairs

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.

‘Entirely alone’

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.

In letters smuggled out of Evin prison last year, Kylie wrote how she felt “entirely alone”. She has also written how her “physical and mental health continues to deteriorate”.

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?

Australia must do more

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.




Read more:
The Australian government needs to step up its fight to free Kylie Moore-Gilbert from prison in Iran


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.

The politics are not straightforward

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.




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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.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walking in front of a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Relations between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are poor.
Iran President handout

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.

This case is relevant for all of us

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.




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The Conversation


Jessie Moritz, Lecturer in Middle East studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.