World

Kylie Moore-Gilbert freed from Iranian prison. Key White House appointments announced by Joe Biden. Solomon Islands leader looks to ban Facebook. Benjamin Netanyahu flies to Saudi Arabia for meeting on normalisation. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert released after 804 days in Iranian prison

Australian–British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert during an appearance on the Iranian state-controlled media network, IRIB.
Credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / IRIB NEWS

Great power rivalry

United States: Joe Biden announced his proposed cabinet appointments this week, unveiling a team of seasoned Obama-era centrists who – as he put it – were “ready to lead the world, not retreat from it”.

On Tuesday, shortly after Donald Trump allowed the transition to begin, Biden declared that “America is back” and began introducing his nominees for top posts. His selections signalled a return to a pre-Trump foreign policy, in which the United States tries to exercise influence by working through international organisations and by strengthening ties with allies and partners.

The proposed secretary of state is Antony Blinken, who previously worked for Biden as an adviser in the senate. John Kerry, a former secretary of state, was chosen as climate change envoy, and Alejandro Mayorkas is set to become the first Latino homeland security secretary.

Biden’s choice of national security adviser is Jake Sullivan, a former Hillary Clinton aide who helped to negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

Still, as Biden told NBC News: “This is not a third Obama term.” Much has changed in the past four years. The US rivalry with China is likely to continue, even though Biden may be more open than Trump was to co-operating in areas such as climate change or the pandemic response. Washington’s recent wariness towards free trade is also set to continue, though Biden is unlikely to launch trade wars or impose tariffs on allies.

Biden’s proposed treasury secretary is Janet Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair who would be the first woman to hold the post. Yellen has recently called for greater federal spending to stimulate the pandemic-ravaged economy. On Tuesday, reports about her appointment helped to push the US sharemarket to a record high.

Trump this week allowed staff to start the transition process but is refusing to concede.

The neighbourhood

Solomon Islands: Manasseh Sogavare, the prime minister of Solomon Islands, has announced plans to ban Facebook, saying the social media site was a threat to “national unity” and was being used for defamation and cyberbullying.

The move has been condemned by opposition MPs and human rights groups who have accused Sogavare of trying to silence criticism of the government. But he defended the proposed ban this week, telling parliament that Facebook was “undermining efforts to unite this country”.

“Users [use] false names, and people’s reputations that have been built up over the years have been torn down in a matter of minutes on Facebook,” he said.

The government wants to temporarily ban the site until it determines how to regulate it. But the move could anger many of the country’s 685,000 residents, who are spread across islands and atolls and use sites such as Facebook to communicate.

China, Iran and North Korea have banned Facebook, and Pacific nations such as Papua New Guinea and Samoa have previously considered it. The Pacific nation of Nauru banned Facebook from 2015 to 2018.

Democracy in retreat

Iran: Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian–British academic detained in Iran on espionage charges, was released this week after spending 804 days in prison.

The 33-year-old, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, was released in exchange for three Iranians, including two men convicted over an attempted bombing in Thailand in 2012 that was reportedly targeting Israeli diplomats.

In a statement, Moore-Gilbert thanked the Australian diplomats and officials who helped to secure her release.

“Thank you also to all of you who have supported me and campaigned for my freedom, it has meant the world to me to have you behind me throughout what has been a long and traumatic ordeal,” she said.

Moore-Gilbert was arrested at Tehran airport after travelling to Iran in August 2018 to attend a summer course on Shiite Islam. News of her arrest did not emerge until 12 months later, when the Australian government confirmed a British media report. Moore-Gilbert was given a 10-year sentence at a secret trial but always insisted she was not a spy. On Friday it was reported that Iranian authorities detained Moore-Gilbert after discovering she was in a relationship with an Israeli citizen.

Australia’s Foreign minister, Marise Payne, said the release was secured in consultation with Moore-Gilbert’s family and through diplomatic engagement with Tehran.

A group of Moore-Gilbert’s colleagues and friends welcomed her release, but added: “This should never have happened. Kylie was held to ransom by the Iranian regime, which saw fit to take an innocent Australian woman hostage in order to bring its own convicted prisoners abroad home.”

Moore-Gilbert acknowledged she faces a challenging adjustment period but said she was leaving Iran with “bittersweet feelings”. “I came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions, and depart Iran with those sentiments not only still intact, but strengthened,” she said.

Spotlight: Israel–Saudi talks

Saudi Arabia: On Monday morning, avid flight trackers started sharing news on social media about an unusual journey by an executive jet that flew from Israel to Saudi Arabia and spent about three hours on the ground before returning. The flight attracted attention because Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel, and travel between the countries is barred.

It soon emerged from American and Israeli media reports, citing Saudi and Israeli sources, that the flight carried Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. None of the countries confirmed that the meeting occurred. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign minister explicitly denied it.

But this clandestine gathering marks a significant development in the growing normalisation of ties between Israel and Arab countries. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan have all recently moved to establish ties with Israel. But an agreement with Saudi Arabia would have far-reaching regional consequences. It is the Middle East’s wealthiest country and biggest military spender, and is home to Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam.

Israel’s deepening ties with the Gulf countries have largely been prompted by shared concerns about Iran. Netanyahu and bin Salman were strong backers of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. The Israeli and Saudi leaders presumably used their two-hour meeting to discuss their approach to the incoming Biden administration, which wants to rejoin the deal.

But normalisation may not be imminent. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, told Reuters last weekend that Riyadh was open to recognising Israel, but added: “One very important thing must happen first – a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Saudi Arabia has offered normalisation in return for an Israeli–Palestinian peace deal since 2002. Still, as tensions heighten in the Persian Gulf, some in the Saudi royal family may consider bending on this precondition, as the royal families in the UAE and Bahrain did. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Moore-Gilbert released after 804 days in Iranian prison".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.