Shortcuts / 11 March 2021

Freeing Kylie Moore-Gilbert

Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a 33yo British-Australian academic who was arrested in Iran in 2018 and convicted of espionage – charges she and our officials deny. This week, she spoke out about her time in Iranian prison and efforts to secure her release. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we get across Iran’s use of hostage diplomacy, what Moore-Gilbert says happened to her while in prison, and how her case was handled by the Australian Government.

Set the scene for me… How does Iran work?
Iran’s system of government is about as far away from Australia’s as you can get. Its Islamic republic was founded in 1979 when the monarchy was overthrown and clerics assumed political control under an anti-Western theocracy. That put an end to the previous regime’s program of modernisation and Westernisation, and has seen the nation’s citizens live under a very conservative form of Islamic leadership. 

Which is probably a good setup for conflict with countries like ours?
That’s right – and the US, European nations, Australia and plenty of others have butted heads with Iran at various times over the last 40 years. But the latest round of rising tensions was sparked by former US President Donald Trump abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

What the what?
Fair question. It was a deal struck with Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US in 2015. Essentially it saw Iran agree to scale back its nuclear activities and the West ease sanctions against them. 

So why did Trump walk?
His predecessor Barack Obama signed the US up to the deal. But Trump said it rewarded Iran as they continued to be a threat to America and the West. The other partners to the agreement pleaded with Trump to keep America in that agreement, saying it was important to keep relationships positive with Iran.

And that created waves?
It sure did. It set off an escalation of tensions between the US and Iran that included America’s assassination of Iran’s military leader, Qassem Soleimani. Even after Trump lost the election last November, he was said to be canvassing options to make military strikes against key Iranian assets, including nuclear facilities. 

Side note: we did a Shortcut on US-Iran relations during that particularly tense time.

So how does Kylie Moore-Gilbert factor into all of this?
Well it was this unhappy environment between Iran and the West (particularly America’s allies…) which experts say have seen Tehran increasingly engage in ‘hostage diplomacy’. 

What’s hostage diplomacy?
It’s when a country puts foreign citizens and dual nationals in detention arbitrarily in a bid to apply pressure to a nation on a political issue.

Is anyone naming names?
Not officially but like when you knew who’d farted at the back of the classroom, you know international supremos are referring to China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as the worst offenders. That’s seen Oz recently join an international coalition of 57 countries condemning the practice. 

And Iran’s still doing this?
It sure is. There are at least 10 foreign and dual-Iranian nationals being held in Iranian prisons at the moment. 

Who are they?
They are charity workers, academics and researchers, and include Westerners who hold US, UK, German, French and Swedish citizenship. Another Australian academic is also in prison there, but we haven’t heard a lot about her with our government working behind the scenes. Those nations have different approaches to securing the release of their citizens. And while the system is opaque, it’s believed that they are a group who have been accused and some convicted of espionage charges or threatening Iran’s security. 

Including Kylie Moore Gilbert… Tell me a bit about her.
Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert is 33yo, she went to high school in Bathurst, NSW and university in Cambridge in the UK and spent a year abroad in Israel learning Hebrew. That saw her enter a career in academia in Melbourne. She is a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute and continued research into revolutions in the Middle East. 

And that’s why she was in Iran?
Yep, she was invited to a conference in Iran in September 2018 – something analysts say could have been a trap. She was then arrested at Tehran Airport as she was leaving the country with the Iranians accusing her of spying. 

Why was she targeted by Tehran?
Dunno. Reports say she was flagged as “suspicious” by a fellow academic at the conference. She says she knows who that person is – a Bahraini man she had interviewed in Iran, for her academic research. It could also be that she spent time in Israel – a sworn enemy of Iran. She’s also married to a Russian-Israeli man, which might have raised red flags.

So she’s detained at the airport – what happened next?
She was interrogated for hours at the airport and her initial reaction was that the claims authorities were making “seemed ludicrous to me”. She was then taken to a safe house for a week before being taken to Evin Prison in Tehran. 

Which I’m guessing was no Taj Mahal…
It’s a notoriously bad place to be. Former inmates have described being subjected to mock executions, beatings and psychological torture. Moore-Gilbert says her time there was very dark, particularly the first month where she was held in the “extreme solitary confinement” of a 2×2 metre box with nothing in it other than a phone. 

That must have been tough…
She says it was a “black hole” that saw her “lose the plot”. She had suicidal thoughts but she never made an attempt on her own life. After that, she decided to channel her anger at the mistreatment into building her own strength and keeping her mind occupied with singing, yoga and meditation, saying that she “wasn’t broken after that”. 

That’s pretty incredible.
It’s amazing, given she had more bad news to come, including that she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for those spying charges. And in the 804 days she was in detention before the Australian Government did a prisoner swap deal for her release, she says she was subjected to horrific conditions and psychological torture. She was beaten once by guards, but wasn’t physically tortured, she says. 

So how did the government secure her release?
It did a prisoner swap deal – the circumstances and details of the deal are secret, but what happened was she was released in exchange for three Iranians held in Thailand. They were said to be involved in a failed bombing attempt aimed at Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, but the men were never charged with terrorism.

Take me through how our government approaches these things?
Again, not a lot is disclosed because it’s highly sensitive. But the general sense of it from those who have gone through it is that the Department of Foreign Affairs works diplomatically ­behind the scenes to cut a deal, and they don’t like the media to get involved because it can anger the nation who is holding the person they’re to help.

But not everyone agrees with how they go about that…
No, and that includes Moore-Gilbert herself. She says she’s “not convinced that the quiet diplomacy argument stacks up”. Being on the inside, she said she knew the only way Iran would consider releasing her was if public pressure was applied. Her situation didn’t come to light publicly until news of Iran’s detention of a couple of Aussie backpackers – Jolie King and Mark Firkin – was reported on in late 2019. And Moore-Gilbert said that reports on her detention and treatment here in Oz and around the world were a key part in securing her release. 

And now she’s back home. Happy days…
Absolutely. Except she found out on her arrival home that her husband had started a new relationship with one of her colleagues. 

She says she knew something was up even when she was in Iran via their phone calls when he stopped telling her he loved her. She says she feels betrayed, and that it’s something even harder to deal with than her detention, and she hasn’t spoken to either of them since arriving back in Australia. 

So hopefully there are better days ahead for Kylie Moore-Gilbert?
Absolutely. She’s looking to the future and says writing a book on all of it is something she wants to do.

Squiz recommends:

Kylie Moore-Gilbert Sky News interview. It’s behind a paywall but those who have Foxtel will be able to watch it when it’s released.

BBC article on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The British-Iranian is another high profile victim of hostage diplomacy. She was an aid worker and was arrested in Iran in 2016, and since then she’s been in and out of prison.

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.