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Will soft diplomacy free Moore-Gilbert? A hard no.

Bren Carlill
3 August 2020

The 1-2 August Weekend Australian included a sad article about the plight of Melbourne academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert. It leads with the question, can quiet diplomacy free her? The short answer is no. Soft diplomacy will not work.

The long answer comes in four parts.

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First, Iran engages in hostage diplomacy. Iran wants something from Australia. We need to ask ourselves, are we willing to meet its demands (and we’re not just talking about charging less for sheep; we’re talking about reorienting the Australia–US relationship, or dropping our support for the international sanctions against Iran due to its support for international terrorism, money laundering and drug smuggling). The follow-on question is, once Iran becomes aware that we’re willing to concede in the face of hostage diplomacy, are we prepared for Iran to double down on this tactic, by taking more Australians hostage?

Second, there is a domestic consideration that makes Australian acquiescence irrelevant. Iran’s Supreme Leader is a constant. But Iran’s president, who helps shape domestic and economic (but not foreign) policy tends to swing between moderates and hardliners in a fairly choreographed manner. Whenever a moderate is president – as has been the case since Moore-Gilbert’s arrest – Iranian security forces (which answer to the Supreme Leader) tend to arrest more foreigners (and domestic reformists). Doing so is a way to keep the reins on the president tight.

Third, Iran is a bully. Like all bullies, it pushes people around, but tends to stop once people have the courage to push back. History has shown Iran back down pretty quickly when countries push back. Or, put differently, when Iran perceives that other countries mean business, Iran backs down. See its (temporary) suspension of nuclear activities in 2003 and its release of US hostages on the even of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1980. (I might add, the Iran-Iraq war is not an example here, since that was an attack on Iran.)

Finally, Iran is in the midst of a battle for regional hegemony. Regional states are looking to great and middle powers to assess where the wind is blowing. They look to Australia to see whether middle powers will acquiesce to Iranian demands or stand up to it. Australia has increasingly found its moral footing in standing up to Chinese regional and intelligence aggression, for which it should be congratulated. Standing up to Iran contains far fewer risks (and less risk), and we should not be afraid to do the right thing.