Kylie Moore-Gilbert: Iran still believes I’m a spy

Academic dived to the floor to cling to the visiting Australian ambassador during Tehran ordeal

An Australian-British academic who was locked up in Iran's notorious Evin prison on trumped-up espionage charges believes Tehran is continuing to spy on her as she attempts to rebuild her life in Australia.

After 804 days in the Iranian jail, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s release should have marked the end of her trauma. But when she returned to her homeland in a prisoner swap in November 2020, the harassment and the hacking continued.

Despite fruitless and relentless questioning behind bars, elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps remain convinced that Dr Moore-Gilbert is a “dangerous Zionist spy”.

She was sentenced to 10 years in jail — the standard punishment for dual-citizen prisoners convicted on security charges — and spent months in solitary confinement.

Now, as an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime and champion of the prisoners she left behind, Dr Moore-Gilbert believes Iran’s intelligence services are continuing to track her activities more than 12,000 kilometres away in Melbourne.

“They're definitely keeping tabs on me, I've been hacked a few times,” she told The National. “They see me now as somebody who's plugged into the network of anti-regime Iranians outside of the country and want to monitor what I'm doing and who I'm talking to.”

She was deliberately vague about details but said she sent some money to a group of people in Iran who had asked for her help to leave the country. Their attempts were thwarted, she believes, because the authorities hacked and read the group’s messages that revealed too much of their plans.

Desperation in detention

Dr Moore-Gilbert, 34, said this left her feeling “exposed and vulnerable” and she approached experts for help. She was not debriefed by the Australian government after her release nor given any advice on how to protect herself against continuing malign Iranian activity.

“They [the Australian government] don't really understand the Iranian regime or the Revolutionary Guards at all, because if they did they'd know that there's absolutely no way I would cease to be a target, given they've convicted me of espionage," she said.

“Most of the IRGC do believe that I'm a spy, even though those who interrogated me know I'm not, because they’re so brainwashed.”

Despite their suspicions, the IRGC also tried to recruit her as an asset of its own. She refused to bow to pressure to become an Iranian spy before she was eventually released.

Dr Moore-Gilbert, a former lecturer in Islamic studies, was arrested in September 2018 and accused of spying as she tried to leave Iran. She was fulfilling an invitation by an Iranian university to join a seminar on Shiite Islam and carry out three weeks of research.

Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Shiraz before her arrest. Photo: Ultimo

In a new book, The Uncaged Sky, she recounts the oppression of her time within prison and judicial systems; the companionship and hope she found with her fellow prisoners; and her frustrations at the Australian and British governments' efforts to have her released.

After six months behind bars, she tells of how she was prompted into drastic action after her guards tried to cut short talks with the Australian ambassador Ian Biggs after a dispute about filming the meeting.

She dived to the floor and grabbed Mr Biggs around the legs and refused to let him go until he told her what the government was doing to get her out. She was punished for her display of defiance, with prison visits and telephone calls halted.

“All credit to Ian Biggs, though,” she said. “He remained seated, didn't get up and leave the room immediately, as was demanded of him by the Revolutionary Guard, and continued to chat with me for a few minutes.

“Whether it had any impact on creating a sense that more needed to be done, I don't know. Maybe it was just the desperate act of a hopeless person, which had very little real-world impact.”

She describes her daily battles and attempts to smuggle secret messages out of prison as part of a tactic of defiance against her interrogators, whose tactics included brutal threats and supplying an expensive cake for her 33rd birthday.

One influential senior official, who identified himself by the pseudonym of Dr Ibrahim Qazi Zadeh, became obsessed with her but later used his position to punish her by extending her prison time.

“I think I would have been released earlier if Qazi Zadeh had not developed a romantic interest in me. Definitely,” she said.

“I can't convey the extent of my rage that he would stoop so low, that he would be so morally bankrupt, that he would extend not only my time in Iran but in solitary confinement for his own purposes.

“That is a psychopathic thing to do.”

She said he may have been responsible for arranging for informants at the prison to phone her after she returned to Australia.

During her early interrogations, her captors encouraged her to persuade her husband to travel to Iran’s Kish Island, because they also believed him to be a spy for Israel. Dr Moore-Gilbert said all of the allegations against them were completely unfounded.

But she was pressured for months to confess to spying before an attempted recruitment as an Iranian spy as the price for her release.

The family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British aid worker whom she met in prison and who flew back to Britain after being released in March, has also spoken of a similar attempt at recruitment. Both women refused such advances.

Dr Moore-Gilbert said she had spent more than a year in prison before it became clear that the authorities had changed tack and tried to strike a deal with the Australian government for her release.

She was eventually freed when Australia agreed to swap her in an exchange for three Iranians held in Thailand.

Dr Moore-Gilbert was one of several dozen foreign or dual-citizen prisoners held on trumped-up security charges from around the time of talks between Tehran and global powers that led to the 2015 deal to lift sanctions on Iran in return for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

The foreign prisoners have been viewed as pawns in Tehran’s broader diplomatic battles, with Americans, British and Europeans all held by the regime. But Dr Moore-Gilbert said the regime was not sophisticated enough to plan the arrest of an innocent person to advance their global ambitions.

Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert says Iran has continued to track her despite her release from captivity in Tehran and return to Melbourne. Photo: Ultimo

She was held after she was reported to the Iranian authorities because of her academic research into the Shiite community in Bahrain and its ties with Iran.

Bargaining chip or hostile actor?

“There's always some suspicion that's cast over us and it's a win-win situation for the Iranians,” she said. "They had either caught a spy or had someone to exchange.

“They've never really paid a price for doing it and they've only ever been rewarded.”

Now back in Melbourne, she has quit academia, divorced her husband and is seeking to rebuild her life through writing and campaigning for those left behind.

“The book draws a line under my own experience because it was important to me to tell my story and to draw attention to some of what I saw with my own eyes in Iran," she said.

“Now that that's done, on a personal level, I do need to try to move on from it. But at the same time, I still feel a strong sense of duty that I need to speak out for my friends who I've left behind.

“So I'm trying to balance those two at the moment. I'm not going to disappear from this space."

Updated: April 27, 2022, 8:36 AM