The release of Islamic scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert last week after more than two years in an Iranian prison has raised a host of questions which are likely to go unanswered, given the prolonged and secretive geopolitical chess game that led to her being freed.
First is why Moore-Gilbert traveled to Iran in the first place, given her professional and personal profile which includes being married to an Israeli, a relationship which Iran has continued to promote as “proof” that Moore-Gilbert is a spy.
And what of her employer, the University of Melbourne? Does it hold a degree of responsibility for her travel to Iran given her position as a staff lecturer?
The university has told Crikey it was “delighted and relieved” that Moore-Gilbert was back in Australia safe and well. “We respect Kylie’s wishes for privacy and we will not comment any further about her ordeal,” a spokesman said.
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You don’t need a doctorate in Islamic studies to know that Israel occupies a special place along with the “Great Satan” — aka the “United Snakes of America” — as the mortal enemy of the Islamic Republic. Middle East 101 tells you that.
Consider the details available online for any security apparatus bent on building the profile of a spy, even if Moore-Gilbert simply behaves as an independent academic.
Moore-Gilbert’s work includes examining the movement to overthrow the rulers of the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain.
Her work has been published by the Middle East Institute, a US think tank which includes Richard A Clarke, a long-time US government national security operative and Reagan-era intelligence adviser, and Anthony Zinni, retired four-star US Marine Corps general who served as special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Moore-Gilbert is a member of the Association for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies which is heavily skewed to Iran’s major Gulf enemy (and US ally) the United Arab Emirates.
That much you can find from a basic Google search.
Iran has also now published video and photographs of Moore-Gilbert’s wedding to an Israeli as well as photos of Moore-Gilbert in Israel, where she reportedly studied Hebrew for a year. The photos and video are reportedly from Moore-Gilbert’s Facebook page, deleted since her arrest. In the spy versus spy world of the Middle East such images are all you need to portray the academic as a Zionist spy. (Moore-Gilbert and the Australian government have outright denied the allegations.)
Moore-Gilbert is not the first Australian to have been trapped in the quagmire of Middle East politics and regime-style justice — and to have discovered there is no such thing as the presumption of innocence.
Australian businessmen Marcus Lee and Matthew Joyce were kept in prison and under house arrest for several years in Dubai despite efforts by the Australian government to get them out.
Australian journalist Peter Greste was held on trumped-up charges in an Egyptian prison for over a year, largely because of regional rivalry between Qatar and Egypt.
Last week Australian Waled Youseff was released after serving 10 months in a Cairo prison for “liking” a Facebook post a decade ago. Egyptian authorities accused him of being a member of a banned organisation.
The International Studies Association, which works to protect academic freedom around the world, highlighted the Moore-Gilbert case last year as evidence of “a broader campaign against academic freedom that has been mounted by many regimes across the globe in recent years”.
Scholars at Risk, a US-based international organisation defending academic freedom, detailed what it called a “horrifying list” of 10 academics, mostly dual citizen Iranians, who were jailed on fabricated charges dating back to 2015. The technology for checking personal data has made it easy to assemble a digital case based on the most circumstantial evidence. Facebook posts are a ready source.
Against this background Moore-Gilbert accepted an invitation to attend a course-cum-conference in the religious city of Qom, south of Tehran, hosted by Qom’s University of Religions and Denominations and an organisation called Iran Study Tours.
Starting at the end of August 2018, it promised an intensive week-long journey into Shia Islam, and a social program to explore “the history, beauty and religious atmosphere of Qom”, followed by an optional four-day cultural tour of Iran’s religious monuments.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported that the 33-year-old Australian-British academic was arrested in September 2018 after Iranian security learnt of her relationship with the Israeli man and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage.
Whether Moore-Gilbert was an innocent abroad, believed that being an academic gave her immunity, or was just plain unlucky, is hard to know given how opaque the saga has been.
Whatever the case, jailing Moore-Gilbert set in train a complex series of diplomatic manoeuvres conducted in secrecy between Iran and Western powers using captives as pawns.
In July last year an Iranian woman held in custody in Adelaide may have been a candidate for a prisoner swap with Australians held in Iran. But she was extradited to the US and destined for another set of deals, said then to involve a dual British-Iranian woman.
In October last year Iran released two Australian travel bloggers who had been arrested after they used a drone to take images in Iran.
About the same time Australia allowed 38-year-old University of Queensland research student Reza Dehbashi Kivi to return to Iran after being detained for more than a year. The US wanted to extradite Kivi on allegations he had conspired to export American-made electronic military devices to Iran, breaching sanctions.
Kivi’s lawyer claimed the deal was made under a prisoner swap. The Australian government made no comment.
Ultimately Iran released Moore-Gilbert at the same time as three Iranian men, held in Bangkok since 2012, were handed to Iran. The three were linked to a plot to kill Israeli diplomats in Thailand.
An Iranian government-linked group, the Young Journalists Club, trumpeted the exchange as a prisoner swap, characterising Moore-Gilbert as a Zionist spy. Australia has refused to comment.
But one thing’s for sure: Australia pulled a lot of strings and drew on a great deal of international goodwill to bring back Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert.