The Middle East has a reputation for miracles, but there was nothing miraculous about Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s release from prison in Iran. It was secured through a sophisticated, realistic, clearly focussed but comprehensive strategy and effectively delivered.
It is not often that Australians find themselves held prisoner as a result of the machinations of a state security apparatus, access to which presents a degree of difficulty far beyond the challenges posed by incompetent police and malfunctioning judicial systems.
Unwillingness to take responsibility for reversing wrong decisions at levels below the apex of power is a common problem in the Middle East. As I encountered in South Sudan, dealing with a patently wrongful conviction for murder of an Australian and his colleagues, and as the subsequent imprisonment of the journalist Peter Greste in Egypt also demonstrated, the consequences for the victims of such abusive behaviour by state institutions may be life-threatening.
But even when attempting to rectify an injustice by dealing at ambassadorial level with civilian bodies of a friendly country, sometimes we succeed, as was the eventual outcome with George Forbes in South Sudan, and sometimes we don’t.
Securing the release of the Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from imprisonment at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—an unaccountable, amoral, ends-driven component of a thuggish regime — is therefore a remarkable achievement. It is particularly worthy of public recognition considering Iran’s appalling human rights record, especially when it comes to dealing with its own citizens.
I am not privy to the details of what was involved. It is clear however that Moore-Gilbert’s release was arranged on the basis of an exchange with Iranians imprisoned for planning a terrorist attack against the Israeli embassy in Bangkok. It therefore required securing the active cooperation of the government and judicial authorities of Thailand, and presumably the agreement of Israel as well.
Nor do I know who exactly was involved at an operational level on the Australian side beyond – according to press reports – the Australian ambassadors in Iran (Lyndall Sachs) and Thailand (Alan Mackinnon) and the Director-General of National Intelligence, Nick Warner. Other Australian ambassadors in the region presumably contributed to the final result.
Ministers fully deserve the credit for a successful outcome. There were diplomatic and other risks from being party to discussions with the most hard-line elements of the Iranian system and negotiating while Tehran and Washington were almost literally at daggers drawn with each other. The government also took a significant political risk. As I am sure was anticipated, the bargain which secured the result provoked legitimate debates in the Australian media about ends and means, moral hazards, and other potential consequences to which there are no easy answers.
Given Nick Warner’s involvement, there was clearly an important role for the Australian intelligence community in securing Moore-Gilbert’s freedom. Accessing the decision-making process in Iran on a matter of this nature would almost certainly have required a network of connections with, and discreet assistance from, third parties understanding and enjoying the confidence of the security apparatus of the Iranian regime. Intelligence channels would also have offered both deniability and the possibility of reasonably secure and mutually respectful communication with the Iranians, until a political decision could be made on both sides to proceed with the exchanges.
Plaudits are due to the Free Kylie Moore-Gilbert support group that maintained a robust and media-savvy campaign to secure Moore-Gilbert’s release. Crucially, the campaign focussed its energy on urging greater action by the Australian government, rather than succumbing to the temptation to lash out in the Australian media at the Iranian authorities. Highlighting the despicable behaviour of the Iranian authorities toward Moore-Gilbert would have achieved about as much as appealing to their better nature.
Politics, intelligence liaison, and advocacy aside, however, this success was due to the endeavour, language, and cultural skills, and experience of dealing with Iran of an extraordinarily strong leadership group within DFAT in Canberra. It is equally obvious that the successful diplomacy underpinning the exercise reflected a level of area expertise regarding Iran and Thailand that only DFAT can provide. This is Lyndall Sach’s third ambassadorial appointment in the Middle East, after Beirut and Baghdad. Allan McKinnon has extensive national security experience and can speak Thai. Nick Warner was ambassador to Iran from 1994-97.
Those professional assets and experience, matched by language skills and regional expertise among senior officials in Canberra, would have been pure gold when it came to advising ministers about navigating the policy and practical challenges posed by Moore-Gilbert’s case. If there is a single positive outcome from the Moore-Gilbert case beyond the welcome fact of her release, it may be its contribution to efforts to convince the Morrison government of the importance of preserving and expanding DFAT’s area expertise and strengthening the Australian diplomatic and intelligence networks.
Bob Bowker retired from DFAT in 2008 after a 37-year career specializing in the Middle East and Islam. Until the end of 2019 he was Adjunct Professor, and later an Honorary Visiting Fellow, at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.
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