By Michael Rubin
August 12, 2020
Almost two years ago, the Iranian government arrested Australian scholar Kylie Moore-Gilbert at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport as she was leaving Iran after attending an academic conference in Qom. Moore-Gilbert languished in Iran’s Evin Prison for over a year, but, in July, Iranian authorities transferred her to Qarchak Women’s Prison, a prison notorious for torture and rape. The resulting outcry led to calls for action across Australia.
If the Australian government wants the Iranian regime to release Kylie Moore-Gilbert, they should begin by looking at how the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have handled their own recent hostage dramas in Iran — and do the opposite.
From its very first months, Iran’s Islamic Republic embraced hostage-taking as a central pillar to its policy arsenal. There was, of course, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Revolutionary students held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Demands included not only the return of the ailing shah who had come to the U.S. to seek cancer treatment but also reparations for past ills real or imagined. While many Western officials believe that by adept diplomacy they can bolster the fortunes of reformers at the expense of hard-liners, they forget that both factions embrace hostage-taking. Masoumeh Ebtekar, for example, rose from being the hostage-taker’s spokesman to a vice president in the Rouhani administration. She has never apologized. Quite the contrary: “None of those engaged in the seizure repent it,” she declared.
The hostage situation resolved not because of sustained diplomacy, but rather because revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could no longer bear Iran’s diplomatic and commercial isolation against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq War.
There followed a series of hostage-takings often perpetrated by Hezbollah, Iran’s chief regional proxy. Despite its tough rhetoric, the Reagan administration agreed to Iran’s ransom in a deal that, when exposed, almost brought the Reagan presidency down. Even then, it did not work because Hezbollah, incentivized by the U.S. ransom, simply seized new hostages within days of the previous hostages’ release. After the Obama administration paid more than $1 billion to ransom several U.S. hostages, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards simply seized more American and Western hostages, including Moore-Gilbert.
Whenever Iran takes an innocent, diplomats always respond with the same counsel: The best chance for resolution is to keep quiet. That was the advice given to the family of Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent whom the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested on Kish Island in March 2007. Levinson languished in prison as the State Department repeatedly told them they were working on his release. Earlier this year, his family received word that Levinson had died in captivity. The Levinson family lost a husband, father, and grandfather; the diplomats who counseled silence so that they could develop relations lost a distraction.
Just in the past month as Moore-Gilbert languished, Australian Ambassador Lyndall Sachs pursued a number of high-profile meetings, none of which appeared to focus on Moore-Gilbert’s plight. Sachs served as a backdrop for Mojtaba Zolnouri, Iran’s Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission chief, to rant about America and, without a touch of irony, note that Australian students in Iran were “a great factor in establishing cultural, social and trade ties with Australia.” She visited the Iranian Red Crescent Society to talk both about fighting brush fires and to announce an Australian donation of COVID-19 kits to Iran, never mind that the Revolutionary Guard had embezzled and diverted previous relief.
After Iranian authorities transferred Moore-Gilbert to Qarchak Women’s Prison, Sachs met with Iran’s top librarian. Only after the outcry in Australia about Moore-Gilbert’s condition did Sachs meet her imprisoned national. Her subsequent assurances that Moore-Gilbert has books and access to medical care mean little. She is still a prisoner, and she likely only received better care because, contrary to the Australia foreign ministry’s advice, family and friends advocated loudly on her behalf.
Herein lies the path to Moore-Gilbert’s release, and that of other hostages immorally and illegally held by the Islamic Republic. While the Iranian government is happy to use Western ambassadors as props to give the regime an air of acceptance and even endorsement, they remain sensitive to isolation.
Simply put, neither the Australian ambassador nor those of any other Western country should accept any meeting or make any public appearance that does not directly relate to the release of hostages held in Iran.
Rather than praise Iran’s government, every diplomat and foreign ministry official (or, in the U.S., congressmen, senators, and campaign operatives) should castigate Iran’s hostage-taking at every opportunity. Every ambassador from a country whose citizens are held should stand in solidarity, and their publics should shout loudly: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Only then will Iran’s hostage-takers understand they can neither cut separate deals nor win cash and concessions for rogue behavior.
The Washington Examiner