Australia/Israel Review

A Prisoner’s Dilemma

May 31, 2022 | Jamie Hyams

Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert (centre) with AIJAC’s Mark Leibler (left) and Joel Burnie (right)
Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert (centre) with AIJAC’s Mark Leibler (left) and Joel Burnie (right)

AIJAC was recently privileged to host an address by Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the Australian academic who was arrested in Iran on trumped-up charges and held prisoner as part of the regime’s hostage diplomacy policy for 804 days. Given the trauma she endured, it is amazing how calmly and matter-of-factly she was able to talk about her ordeal and the insight it gave her into the inner workings of the Iranian regime.

She said that, while not an initial reason for her arrest, it did complicate matters once her captors learnt of her connections to Israel and Judaism – Moore-Gilbert was married to an Israeli, had lived in Israel for a while, had converted to Judaism and speaks Hebrew. 

However, she realised it didn’t actually matter to them so much, as they had already crafted their narrative around her to extort her government, whether it be Australian or British – Dr Moore-Gilbert is a dual citizen.

She explained that she spoke about her Judaism to her guards frequently, and gained some interesting insights into the way even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members regarded Israel, Judaism and Zionism. While they did see them as the enemy, there were also “grey areas” which led to some “interesting chats” about matters such as the similarities between the Islamic and Jewish religions. She said she came to realise that many of them “were not hostile to Jews per se or Judaism as a religion,” despite the IRGC’s espousal of antisemitism and enmity towards Israel.

She added that many weren’t even clear about why they had a problem with Israel. Despite over 40 years of indoctrination to hate Israel, it wasn’t true, in her experience, that the Iranian people, and even IRGC members, had been completely turned against the Jews and Israel, and there was some hope of rapprochement in the future. In fact, some Iranians had a positive view of Israel, most weren’t antisemitic and some said they didn’t really understand why their regime was so vehemently against the Jewish state.

She explained that the IRGC used intense interrogations to try to blackmail her into agreeing to spy for them. She told the audience she asked them what was to stop her agreeing and then reneging once she had been released, given they would have no leverage over her once she was outside the country, as they did with expatriate Iranians. She was told that they have people everywhere, and if she ran away, they would kill her. Moore-Gilbert said that she refused because she wanted to walk out of Iran’s prisons as a free woman.

She explained that fellow political prisoners who became very close friends helped her keep her spirits up, and she now regards two of them as her sisters. They communicated with her for ten months through a ventilation system before they even met. She’s heartbroken that they are still imprisoned, having been arrested for investigating and advocating for the protection of an endangered species, not knowing they were in an area where the IRGC had missile launchers.

Moore-Gilbert said she believes the regime will eventually fall, because the Iranians are “revolutionary people”, and it will then be possible to see friendship arising again between the Iranian and Israeli people. Even some IRGC guards would acknowledge to her in private that the Holocaust did happen, and they didn’t want to kill Israelis. Most everyday people “weren’t at all anti-Israeli”, especially once they realised the shortcomings of their regime. She even met some Iranians in prison who were there for supporting Israel or contacting Israelis. She was quite heartened by these interactions.

There are major protests against the regime every couple of years, which might start with a single issue, Moore-Gilbert noted, such as prices, but they typically grow into demonstrations against the regime in general. Support for the regime, she added, very much falls away the younger people get. She said she strongly believes that when the West is trying to come to an agreement with Iran, its appalling human rights record should also be brought up. The Iranian people, she says, want democracy, and the West should be pushing for that, as well.

Dr Moore-Gilbert said she is very grateful for the efforts by the relevant governments that ultimately got her released, including those of Israel in approving the release of terrorists who had tried to carry out an attack against Israel’s ambassador in Thailand, as part of a prisoner swap, but that she and her family had long called for the diplomatic efforts to release her to be more public. She said she questions the logic of keeping it behind the scenes. Her advice is that in future cases, more public pressure should be put on the regime.

She described the Iranian regime as “master negotiators” who regard any concessions offered under negotiations as weakness and vulnerability and as a sign they should demand more rather than come to a compromise. They don’t like to compromise, they like to get everything they want, she added. They also like having Israel as something they can blame, and they liked having Donald Trump as US President, because he was seen as a black-and-white bad guy character they could use to tell the Iranian public there was no point in negotiating about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, Moore-Gilbert said. 

She added that there are forces within Iran that are very much bent on undermining anyone who makes an effort to make any accommodation with the West, including the current President [Ebrahim Raisi], who, as well as being a war criminal, is a very extreme hardliner. They don’t want to get along with the West, they don’t want the JCPOA and they like the tension with the West. In fact, she said, they have grown very rich off it, with the IRGC controlling huge sectors of the economy, including much of the oil and gas markets. Should the JCPOA be renewed, the IRGC will have competition again, so for a number of reasons, they don’t want the JCPOA or any deal with the West.

Dr Moore-Gilbert also provided insights into her frame of mind in going to Iran, why she was arrested (she was sold out by someone who she had spoken to who seemed entirely innocuous), the circumstances of her arrest at the airport, the people she met in prison, how she approached her interrogations and her other experiences in Iran.

If her talk to the AIJAC audience was any indication, her book, The Uncaged Sky (Ultimo Press), reviewed in the May AIR, will be absolutely fascinating, if more than a little harrowing. 


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