Australia’s ambassadorial offices and political leaders have a consistent record of ignoring their citizens in tight situations. David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and Julian Assange are but a few names that come to mind in this inglorious record of indifference. In such cases, Australian public figures and officials have tacitly approved the use of abduction, torture and neglect, usually outsourced and employed by allies such as the United States.
Australian diplomacy, to that end, is nastily cheap. It comes at heavily discounted prices, when it comes at all. To then see the extent of interest and effort in seeking the release of Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from Iranian captivity, is as interesting as it is perplexing. A work ethic in Canberra has come into being. Nothing was spared securing the release of Moore-Gilbert, where she had been imprisoned for espionage charges and spent 804 days in detention. Fears for her wellbeing spiked with her transfer to Qarchak women’s prison, not known for its salubrious facilities. She had previously spent time at Tehran’s Evin prison.
Efforts were made by Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who raised Moore-Gilbert’s detention in four meetings with her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. As she confirmed, the release “was achieved through diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government.”
Iranian authorities put it to the Australians that they wanted three of their covert operatives – Saeid Moradi, Mohammad Kharzei and Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh – released. The three men in question had been held in Thailand for planting explosive devices in Bangkok in an effort to assassinate Israeli diplomats in 2012. Whatever the skills of these operatives, bomb making was evidently low on the list. An accidental explosion holed their rented Bangkok villa. Moradi was sentenced to life for his attempt to kill a police officer. The police officer survived; Moradi’s legs did not, lost when a grenade he tossed bounced back and detonated. Kharzei received 15 years for possessing explosives.
With the list handy, the Australian government approached Thai contacts. Moore-Gilbert’s release had, Payne claimed, become a matter of “absolute priority”. Israeli government officials were also engaged. A secret agreement was reached, involving what was effectively a prisoner exchange.
Whatever else is said of her case, the issue of the effort and labour put in is significant. Throw in the cliché of being an academic with Middle-Eastern expertise working in foreign climes, and you have a recipe rather richer than is advertised.
The heavily scripted nature of the affair is screamingly evident. Media coverage of Moore-Gilbert’s release, and the circumstances of her detention, has avoided much in the way of analysis. The tone is very much that of the official press release. What we get, instead, are the anodyne statements from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, supposedly “thrilled and relieved” by the outcome. “The tone of her voice was very uplifting, particularly given what she has been through.” We also get notes of worry. Amber Schultz of Crikey expressed concern about the prolonged “ordeal” that would continue to face Moore-Gilbert upon her return to Australia.
That Moore-Gilbert’s release was, in fact, brokered as part of a broader prisoner release is not laboured over. The prime minister is cryptic in his statement. “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.” Skirted over, as well, is Moore-Gilbert’s relationship with an Israeli, which, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, led to “baseless claims that she was a spy for Israel.”
Iran’s Young Journalist Club has its own serve on the subject, making mention of the release. Moore-Gilbert “was swapped for an Iranian businessman and two other nationals incarcerated abroad on delusional accusations, Iranian news agencies reported.” It notes a report by the IRNA news agency claiming that the academic “had passed a two-year special training course for her spying mission.” She attained fluency in Persian “and was prepared to perform espionage activities in Iran.” What interested the IRNA was her second visit, when “she entered Iran on the recommendation of the Zionist regime [Israel] on the lunar calendar month of Muharram”. Details are sketchy on what Moore-Gilbert supposedly did. She “travelled to different cities as part of her mission and gathered information.”
For her part, Moore-Gilbert, in letters smuggled out of Evin prison, denies ever being a spy. “I am not a spy. I have never been a spy, and I have no interest to work for a spying organisation in any country.”
The standard concern by some in the media stable is that such exchanges are common instruments in Tehran’s foreign policy arsenal. The Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, suggested “a clear pattern by Iran’s government to arbitrarily detain foreign and dual nationals and use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with other states.” The executive director of the Australian Israel and Jewish Affairs Council Colin Rubenstein saw the practice of using hostages in exchanges “for terrorists is typical of the tyrannical Iranian regime.” Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow with the Middle Eastern program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes “hostage-taking as a tool of statecraft for four decades now. The Revolutionary Guards are blatant about it and believe it delivers results.”
Such concerns are legitimate and consistent, though the circumstances for each situation varies. Attention should be paid to the quarry being traded. The Iranian Republic has a striking appetite for detaining academics and researchers. French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Iranian-Swedish academic Ahmadreza Djalali, have all been the subject of Tehran’s ire. Djalali, also accused of spying for Israel, faces execution.
The question not being asked is why Moore-Gilbert was that valuable so as to warrant the release of three Iranian agents. Afshon Ostovar, an academic based at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of National Security Affairs, sees little in the incongruence; Iran negotiation strategy, he more than implies, lacks proportion. “It seems rather puzzling that Iran’s imprisonment of an innocent foreign grad student [sic] should lead to the release of three of its covert agents jailed for failed explosive attacks in Thailand but that’s how the Islamic Republic does business.”
One person not exactly cheering the prisoner swap is Israel’s former ambassador to Thailand, Itzhak Shoham. On Israel’s Channel 12, he vented. “I don’t know anything about this deal beyond what was published. Of course it saddens me to see the pictures as [the Iranians] celebrate instead of rotting in prison, if they haven’t already been executed.” Rather abstractedly, Shoham had one consolation: that the former chief of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, was killed in January in a US drone strike.
This prisoner exchange is also odd in another respect. Such instances are usually occasions of much fanfare for Tehran. Iranian television anchors tend to be at hand, noting the names of the released figures and their return to families. “The reason for Iran’s refusal to name those freed remains unclear,” states the cautious Times of Israel. “However, Tehran has long denied being behind the bomb plot and likely hopes to leverage the incoming administration of US President-Joe Biden to ease American sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump.”
The nagging question remains: Why did the Australian government regard Moore-Gilbert’s case as exceptional?