As pressure on Iran mounts, there is little room for quiet diplomacy to free detained Australians


Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has offered to help free three detained Australians in Iran, but the attacks on Saudi oil facilities have made the situation vastly more complicated.
Stringer/EPA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Australia’s attempts to secure the release of an Australian national and two with joint UK-Australian citizenship from an Iranian prison have become vastly more complicated following the brazen attacks on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.

Room for quiet diplomacy has been narrowed while the world comes to terms with a strike at the very heart of global energy security.

At this stage, it is not clear to what extent facilities at Saudi Arabia’s main refinery have been crippled, but initial reports indicate it could be weeks and possibly months before it is brought back into full production.




Read more:
As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many


Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq refinery processes about half the kingdom’s oil production. According to initial reports, the attack reduced throughput by 5 million barrels a day, or nearly 5% of global production.

‘Hostage diplomacy’

Australia’s former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has offered to intervene with the Iranian authorities in an attempt to secure the release of the Australian nationals being held in Tehran.

These include Mark Firkin and his UK-Australian girlfriend, Jolie King. The two were arrested earlier this year for the unauthorised flying of a drone near a military facility on the outskirts of Tehran. They have not been charged.

More serious at this stage, however, is the case of Melbourne University Middle East specialist and joint UK-Australia citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in October 2018. She has been sentenced to 10 years in jail.

University of Melbourne Middle East specialist Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Handout/EPA

Iran has not publicly announced details of charges against her.

The cases of Moore-Gilbert, Firkin and King have, inevitably and unhelpfully, become enmeshed in wider geopolitical tensions in which Iran is fighting back against a US sanctions regime that seeks to cripple its economy.

Iran is being accused of “hostage diplomacy” by resorting to the incarceration of foreign nationals at a time when sanctions are rendering enormous damage to its oil-exporting economy.

This is the background to the diplomatic challenges facing the Australian government in its efforts to free its citizens. These are, by any standards, unpromising circumstances.

While Australian officials insist Canberra’s decision to commit to a US-led mission to protect ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz is unconnected to the detention of its citizens, Tehran has a history of using individuals ruthlessly as bargaining chips in a wider geopolitical game.




Read more:
Infographic: what is the conflict between the US and Iran about and how is Australia now involved?


Hostage taking, or “hostage diplomacy”, has a lengthy tail in the history of the Islamic Republic going back to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and a siege that ensued for 444 days. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year.

More recently, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was held in Iran for 544 days before being released with three other Iranian-Americans as part of a prisoner swap in 2016, just before economic sanctions on Iran were lifted under the terms of the nuclear deal.

In recent weeks, Iran has also detained a UK-flagged oil carrier in the Persian Gulf. The Stena Impero remains in Iranian custody, but members of its crew have been let go.

US blaming Iran for Saudi attack

All this was contributing to heightened tensions in the gulf before this weekend’s attacks at the very heart of Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted little time in blaming Iran for the attacks. Although Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the strikes using drones, Washington is investigating whether cruise missiles were the weapon of choice, fired from either Iraq or Iran itself. A Trump administration official told Reuters,

There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate.

Tehran has denied Washington’s accusations.

Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni government allies have been engaged in a vicious conflict with Houthi rebels since 2015. Thousands have been killed, and many more displaced, in what is regarded as the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today.




Read more:
Yemen: a calamity at the end of the Arabian peninsula


Iran is supporting the Houthis and is widely accused of fuelling the Yemen conflict to weaken Saudi Arabia.

In other words, the gulf and its environs are primed for worsening conflict unless the US and Iran can reach an accommodation that would enable an easing of sanctions.

President Donald Trump has been angling for a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly to address ways in which tensions could be eased.

Attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities – and, thus, the global economy – hardly provides a favourable environment for discussions that might, or might not, take place.

Iran has set as a precondition for talks a relaxation of sanctions.

Satellite image of smoke from fires at two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia after the attack over the weekend.
NASA Worldview Handout/EPA

Australia’s limited leverage

Meanwhile, the Australian government finds itself in a situation where it has limited leverage. Trade between Australia and Iran is negligible and holds little promise as long as sanctions remain in place. Canberra’s decision to join a US-led mission in the Middle East means that it is now identified with Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach.

Australia is one of three countries to have signed up to the US initiative. The others are Britain and Bahrain.

In all of this there is another complicating factor, and one that has been little-reported. Tehran was displeased when Australia arrested an Iranian citizen at the request of the US for breaching sanctions.

Iran made repeated representations to secure the release of Negar Ghodskani after her arrest in 2017. She has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of technology from the US and faces a hefty fine and jail time.

This is a tangled web, and hardly likely to become less so.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

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

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Death Toll Mounts in Chinese Earthquake


The death toll in the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the Chinese province of Qinghai is fast approaching 1500 killed. The Qinghai province is located in China’s Tibetan region. Hundreds are still missing and more than 11 000 have been injured.

Damage in the region is tremendous, with many, many people homeless and facing disease, hunger and other difficulties as a consequence of this massive disaster. Thousands of homes and structures have been destroyed.

Government pressure mounts on beaten Indian pastor


Police in Karnataka are pressuring a church pastor to drop charges against the militant Hindus who put him in the hospital last month, reports MNN.

Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Mission India says Pastor Anil is now recovering at home. The Children’s Bible Club he established as part of his church planting work is still meeting, though some parents are fearful of ongoing violence.

Pastor Anil is following doctors’ orders to stay on bedrest for one month. Pray that the Holy Spirit will minister to him during this time and that Anil will be encouraged and strengthened to return to his work soon.

The attack took place in late November. Pastor Anil was preaching to his congregation of 45 on a normal Sunday when the doors burst open. A crowd of 50 angry Hindu extremists ran in screaming and wielding sticks.

In this remote Hindu-dominated village of about 2,000, the number of Christians continues to grow. Local believers stood strong even as Hindu extremists entered their homes and tried to convince them to renounce their faith.

According to Mission India, the extremists feel threatened by the huge response to the Gospel across India. The Good News is a threat to the social and spiritual oppression that has enslaved generations of India’s poor.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

CHINA: OFFICIALS GRAPPLE WITH SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY


Christians may face increased controls as government reacts to growth, public discontent.

BEIJING, February 4 (Compass Direct News) – Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Sources told Compass that authorities in recent months have been quietly gathering data on church growth, with surveys at universities and workplaces pointedly asking whether respondents were Christians. The surveys seemed largely unconcerned about other religions.

At the same time, Communist Party officials have called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. On Dec. 20 officials called a meeting at one of Beijing’s most prestigious cultural colleges to lecture faculty members about such dangers. A Christian teacher forced to attend told Compass that the lecturers distorted historical facts to impress upon her and her colleagues that Buddhism, Daoism and Islam were “indigenous” and therefore safe. The teacher noted that Islam, having come from the Middle East, could hardly be regarded as indigenous to China, and that Buddhism originally came from India but later took on Chinese characteristics.

By contrast, the officials told the teachers that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were foreign and hence potentially “subversive.” Party members warned participants to be on guard against these faiths.

China’s leaders have warned that 2009 will be marked by increased unrest and demonstrations as public anger mounts against increasing unemployment and corruption. Also disconcerting to the government is Charter 08, an online pro-democracy initiative launched in mid-December and signed by an increasing number of Chinese Netizens. It calls for an end to the one-party system, an independent court and freedom of speech. Many of the original signatories were well-known pro-democracy lawyers and intellectuals, but the list now includes computer technicians, construction workers and farmers.

In response to these signs and portents of unrest, the government has begun to increase political and social control. Christian leaders told Compass they did not feel a huge crackdown was necessarily imminent, but they said the overall political climate had become more tense and that this would almost certainly affect unregistered house church Christians.

House church leaders in Beijing told Compass that conditions now seemed even “tighter” than in the period leading up to the Olympic Games last August. In previous years Christians rented halls and conference rooms for large-scale Christmas events, but last year’s Christmas celebrations were deliberately low-key.

A house church leader in a major northeastern city confirmed this general sense of caution. He added that he had seen an internal document leaked from the local Religious Affairs Bureau, dated in early January, which warned against “subversion” by supposedly hostile Christian forces from overseas.

The leaders were generally optimistic about the continuing work and growth of the church, with one Beijing pastor claiming more than 1,000 new converts were baptized last year in his group alone.

 

Mixed Signals

Chinese officials last November had initiated talks with Protestant house church Christians, raising hopes for greater freedom.

Meetings organized partly by the China State Council’s Research and Development Center brought together academics and lawyers, many of them house church members, and a delegation of six Protestant house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou. As the Times of London reported in January, however, no Catholic representatives were invited; the Communist Party remains in a political standoff with the Vatican. (See Compass Direct News, “Officials Reach Out to House Churches; Raids, Arrests Continue,” Dec. 9, 2008.)

At the time, church leaders involved in the discussions were cautiously optimistic. Pastor Ezra Jin of Beijing’s Zion Church told the Times, “The government … has understood that the Protestant church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony.” He added that the government wanted to evaluate whether house churches posed a threat to the regime and to ask why they rejected the leadership of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, an official body appointed to oversee Protestant churches.

Despite these talks, house church raids and arrests have continued. On Jan. 16, Public Security Bureau officers forcibly removed pastor Zhang Mingxuan from fellow pastor Hua Huiqi’s house in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province, warning him not to return, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

Zhang had gone to visit Hua’s ailing father, Hua Zaichen. For years the elderly Hua and his wife, Shuang Shuying, have suffered harassment for their work with the unofficial church. Authorities have now denied Shuang, currently serving a two-year prison sentence, permission to visit her dying husband.

On Jan. 2, police raided a house church meeting in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, detaining 50 people. Later that day, 48 of them were released without charge; another was released after paying a 500 yuan (US$73) fine, and the last was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, according to CAA.

On Dec. 3, 2008, members of the Taikang County Domestic Defense Protection Squad burst into a private home in Chuanhui district, Zhoukou municipality, Henan, and arrested 50 Christians gathered there, CAA reported. About 20 of the detainees were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention while leaders Tang Houyong, Shu Wenxiang and Xie Zhenqi were sentenced to one year of labor and re-education.

Some house church Christians have become more vocal in their calls for justice and religious liberty. For example, following the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit on behalf of Tang Houyong and his companions, Tang’s wife filed a motion to dismiss the Chief Justice of the court for violating legal procedures.

With the specter of serious political and social unrest looming before officials in the face of China’s economic recession, such Christian protests could add to the government’s unease over the growing number and influence of house church Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News