News of the arrests, which happened several months after another British-Australian woman was detained – and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison – only surfaced on Wednesday. The woman, who is reportedly an academic from Melbourne, has not been named.
Blogging about travels
Ms King and Mr Firkin, from Perth, were said to have been blogging about their adventures in the Middle East when they were arrested.
They are understood to have been detained after allegedly camping in a military area outside of Jajrood, in Tehran province.
Manoto TV, a Persian-language broadcaster in London, reported the couple were arrested for flying a drone near Tehran. The couple use a drone to make videos of their travels which they post on social media.
The two British-Australian women are said to be incarcerated in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail, where 41-year-old Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother of one, has been held on spying charges since 2016.
Australia said it had repeatedly raised the cases with Iran, including in a meeting between officials last week, in order to assist its citizens.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the BBC she has lobbied on their behalf in a meeting with her Iranian counterpart.
On Thursday, Ms Payne described the detentions as “a matter of deep concern” and confirmed help had been given to the families of those involved.
“Since they were detained, the Australian government has been pressing at the Iranian government for their release,” she said.
“The government has been making efforts to ensure they are treated fairly, humanely and in accordance with international norms,” she added.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to say whether he intends to raise the issue with his Iranian counterpart.
“Engaging in public commentary about process on consular cases is never in the interests of those who are caught up in these issues,” Morrison told reporters.
“[We] hope to see Mark and Jolie safely home as soon as possible,” their families have said.
The blogger and her boyfriend had been documenting their travels on YouTube and Instagram, with their followers having become concerned in the past several weeks by the absence of any new posts.
The cases of the two women are believed to be the first imprisonments in Iran of British passport holders who do not also have Iranian nationality.
Their arrests come amid a downturn in relations between Britain and Iran, sparked by issues including the seizure by the Royal Marines in July of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar.
Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has agreed to their Australian counterparts handling the case.
As the yellow Sky News ticker flashed up yesterday announcing John Bolton’s departure from the White House, a colleague said something that seemed remarkable: “Donald Trump hasn’t made news in ages”.
t wasn’t a reflection of a period of relative calm in the United States – far from it – but more of a recognition that our own parliamentary shenanigans have overtaken the political theatre usually dominated by Trump. Not that we’re keeping scores, but at least the political chicanery in Westminster has been driven by politics and technical process. In Washington, President Trump caused controversy when he changed the forecast of a hurricane’s impact with a black sharpie (see above)
Bolton’s firing should not have come as a surprise. Trump was reportedly furious with him after he disapproved of the White House’s plans to host the Taliban for peace talks at Camp David. So Trump took to Twitter – naturally – to announce that he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration”.
It has not even been 24 hours since the Bolton departure was announced, but already plenty of ink has been spilled analysing ‘what this means for X’. In truth, it is difficult to assess the implications of Bolton’s departure on US foreign policy. The Times of Israel’s analysis of what the departure means for the country, whilst excellent, begins by saying: ‘while a major change in US policy doesn’t appear to be in the offing’ – reflecting the fact that a change in personnel in this White House does not always result in a significant swing in policy.
Instead, Bolton’s leaving is yet another chapter in the never-ending book of who’s up and who’s down in Trump’s inner circle. It further proves that, when faced with honest disagreement, the President relies on his own self-belief and opinions at the expense of any notion of loyalty or challenge.
From a policy perspective, Bolton was a hawkish foreign policy adviser whose appointment came as a surprise, given his divergence with Trump on the role of the USA on the global stage. It was never clear how Bolton’s gung-ho interventionist approach would play during this ‘America First’ presidency. Bolton pursued a deeply hard-line agenda on Venezuela, North Korea and – most notably – Iran.
In the past he had called for the bombing of the country, hence Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President, responding to the news by saying the US should put “warmongers aside”. But having pulled out of the Iran deal last year and significantly ratcheted up pressure on Iran with Bolton by his side, there is no suggestion Trump will now preside over a cooling of tensions in the region, even without the advice of Bolton.
Instead, we are more likely to see the president double down on his deeply personal approach to foreign policy. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, described how “the president has unlimited and totally misplaced confidence in summitry and in the power of his personality”.
On high stakes relations with the likes of North Korea, Iran, China and Afghanistan, there will be one less dissenting voice urging the President to put his faith in his negotiating teams as opposed to his own personal relationships with presidents, prime ministers and dictators.
Foreign and defence policy have been the areas with the most churn when it comes to personnel during Trump’s tenure. There is no sign of this stopping any time soon. Trump will announce a new National Security Adviser in the next week, becoming the first president to have four such advisers in his first term. With the presidential election not taking place until November 2020, your columnist bets he will become the first president to have a fifth and sixth too.
Three British-Australian people have been arrested in Iran in two separate incidents, diplomats have confirmed.
Reports say Australian officials are assisting the families of a British-Australian blogger and her Australian boyfriend who were arrested 10 weeks ago for allegedly camping in a military area outside of Jajrood, in Tehran province.
Another British-Australian woman, who works as an academic at an Australian university, was arrested several months ago and sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to agencies.
The two women are reportedly incarcerated in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail, where 41-year-old Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother of one, has been held on spying charges since 2016.
The 40-year-old was arrested at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport while travelling with her young daughter in April 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison after being accused of spying, a charge she vehemently denies. Successive British Foreign Secretaries, including Boris Johnson, have failed to secure her release.
The Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed on Wednesday it was lending consular assistance to the families of the three people who were more recently arrested, but whose names have not been made public.
“[DFAT] is providing consular assistance to the families of three Australians detained in Iran. Due to our privacy obligations, we will not comment further,” the department said in a statement provided to the PA news agency.
While the charges against the second woman, a Cambridge-educated academic, remain unclear, 10-year terms are often handed down in Iran for spying charges.
Warning to travellers
The blogger and her boyfriend had been documenting their travels on YouTube and Instagram, with their followers having become concerned in the past several weeks by the absence of any new posts.
The Adrian Darya 1 left Gibraltar on Sunday apparently headed for the Greek port of Kalamata following assurances from the Iranian authorities that neither the vessel nor its cargo of two million barrels of crude oil were headed for Syria and the Tehran-backed regime of Bashar Al Assad. But the Greek prime minister, Kyrikos Mitsotakis, has now insisted the vast Iranian-flagged tanker is not expected at any of the country’s ports, raising fresh concerns that its cargo could yet reach Syria.
Shipping experts earlier this week warned that the device used to track the location of all vessels had briefly ceased to function on board the Adrian Darya 1 – a tactic previously known to have been used by Iranian vessels seeking to conceal their whereabouts.
Speaking in Paris after a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron, Mr Mitsotakis said: “The ship is not heading towards Greece. We have not received a request for it to dock in a Greek port.”
A last-minute attempt by the American authorities to prevent the vessel from leaving Gibraltar failed after an application for further detention was rejected by the courts in the British overseas territory.
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has left open a fresh attempt to detain the tanker, which Washington argues is operated by a company with close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – a designated terrorist organisation in Washington.
No port capable of docking large oil tanker
Despite the insistence of the Greek authorities, vessel tracking websites continued to list the Adrian Darya 1 as heading for Kalamata – a port more commonly associated with olive oil than crude – and due to arrive there on Monday.
The Greek foreign minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis pointed out that his country does not have a port capable of docking an oil tanker the size of the Adrian Darya 1. But when asked if any action would be taken should the ship enter or halt in Greek waters, he was evasive. Mr Varvitsiotis said: “In that case we will see what will happen.”
The Adrian Darya 1 has been at the heart of a fresh crisis between Tehran and the West since it was seized off Gibraltar in July on suspicion of breaking an oil embargo on Syria.
In the meantime, the intentions of the Iranians concerning their tanker remain unknown. The Automatic Identification System or AIS on board the Adrian Darya 1, which sends a radio signal allowing the location, heading and speed of a vessel to be monitored, briefly went “dark” on Tuesday, prompting shipping experts to warn that similar tactics have been previously used by Tehran to try to conceal the activities of Iranian tankers leaving the Arabian Gulf.
Failures of the AIS system are not unusual but maritime experts have said such technical blips can be used to conceal activities including the transfer of liquid cargoes from one vessel to another while still at sea.
A stand-off between the two countries, sparked by the seizure of the Grace 1 – now renamed the Adrian Darya 1 – by Royal Marines last month, showed little sign of abating. Tehran issued a warning that any move by Washington to detain the ship containing two million barrels of oil would have “heavy consequences”.
The tanker, now sailing under an Iranian flag, was allowed to leave Gibraltarian waters on Sunday night after the British Overseas Territory’s courts rejected a last-minute warrant from the United States seeking its fresh seizure. The release of the ship was ordered last week after Tehran gave assurances that its cargo, worth tens of millions of pounds, was not destined for Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
But the Iranian authorities, who are continuing to hold the British-registered tanker Stena Impero, insisted the departure of the Adrian Darya 1 did not represent an end to legal proceedings and promised further action to seek damages from the UK government.
Tehran seeks damages
The semi-official FARS news agency reported that the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ebrahim Rayeesi, had told a gathering of officials that the lengthy detention of the tanker “is not compensated just by releasing it but by making up for the damage”. He added that such compensation “should be received through litigation to give a lesson to all those who violate the international rules”.
Such action is unlikely to yield rapid results. Tehran has been fighting in the British courts for the last 40 years for the payment of some £300m owed by Britain from the abandoned sale of Chieftain tanks to Iran’s last shah prior to the Islamic Revolution.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he was “happy” that the “ordeal” of the Adrian Darya 1 was concluded. But Tehran showed no sign of adopting a conciliatory stance after Washington made it clear it still wants to seize the vessel.
American officials insist the tanker is owned by a web of companies with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which is designated by Washington as a terrorist organisation. The Trump administration has also said it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero as it continues its opposition to the nuclear deal, which is still supported by the EU.
An Iranian government spokesman said it had warned Washington through diplomatic channels that any fresh attempt to detain the Adrian Darya 1 would have “heavy consequences” and was liable to “endanger shipping safety in open seas”.
The final destination of the tanker remains unclear despite an indication on ship tracking data on Monday that it is bound for the Greek port of Kalamata, due to arrive on Monday afternoon. The Greek authorities have said only that they are monitoring the vessel.
Tehran said it was also awaiting a decision by the Iranian courts over allegations that the Stena Impero, seized in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz on 19 July, committed violations of maritime rules.
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, an influential member of the Iranian parliament, said: “The crisis with Britain is not over. Britain has the primary responsibility for ending the oil tanker crisis.”
On the surface, in Tehran and other cities of Iran, all may appear calm, orderly and devout. Women wear their headscarves, as required by law; the devout turn up in their thousands to religious ceremonies.
Just below the surface, though, Iran is far from calm. The hardline, religious regime – which took control after the popular uprising against the Shah in 1979 and has held the real power in the country ever since – is going one way, the majority of the population the other.
During my time as foreign secretary, I became fascinated, bewitched, infuriated and perplexed by this singular country. I strived to understand it better, and have done ever since, as I explain in my new book, The English Job.
In 2001, I was the first British foreign secretary to visit the country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and have visited many times since.
Its people, with few exceptions, are delightful. They are possessed of the greatest of gifts, of imagination, inventiveness, a great sense of their literature and culture, a passion for poetry. I count many Iranians as my friends – and so I have learnt that many appear to be one thing in public but are quite another in private.
The secret lives of the Persian people
Walk around any big city, for example, and observe closely. The headscarves on many women, middle-aged as well as young, are pushed back as far as possible, in insolent defiance to the old men who lay down how women should dress.
Under a loose coat they may be wearing the tightest of tight jeans, and the women’s eyes and faces are heavily made-up. In a population that ranks 19th in the world, Iran’s consumption of make-up ranks seventh.
This defiance can bring these women into conflict with the official “morality police” which ensures compliance with the rules. In three months in 2014, for example, 220,000 women were taken to a police station to sign statements promising the proper use of the headscarf, and 8,269 were detained, according to the Ministry of the Interior.
Alcohol is banned. Yet it is so widely available – much of it homemade – that, according to The Economist, amongst majority Muslim countries, Iran is behind only Lebanon and Turkey, where its sale and consumption is legal, in per person usage.
TV and radio in Iran are strictly controlled, while the state filters the internet and blocks social media sites – not that this has stopped the Supreme Leader himself from occasionally using his own Twitter account.
Despite the risks, millions of Iranians use their ingenuity to get around this censorship. More open access to the internet is secured through virtual private networks; fly over any town and see the roofs festooned with illegal satellite dishes. BBC Persian is watched by 11 million people, and millions more watch other foreign TV channels.
The state claimed that it confiscated 270,000 satellite dishes in 2015, but it is losing the battle.
Even though it is an Islamic republic, there’s also been a decline in the numbers attending mosques regularly. “People laugh at all the nonsense the mullahs are telling them,” says Darioush Bayandor, a former Iranian diplomat.
The result is a country that is full of paradoxes; a mass of contradictions.
It’s little wonder that as many as 150,000 educated Iranians leave the country each year – people who could be contributing to its development.
So what’s behind this oppression? And why have the people been unable to break free?
Just as there’s a difference between the public and private lives of the Iranian people, there’s also a difference between the politicians they vote for and the people who actually control the country.
The real president of the Islamic Republic is not the elected Hassan Rouhani, who will leave office in 2021, but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, effectively president for life.
Every one of the coercive powers of the state – the police, the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, the army, the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guard – is vested in the Supreme Leader. Elected ministers have no role, and parts of the system are almost out of control.
This causes huge rivalries, as my wife and I experienced on our holiday in the country in October 2015. We had to be protected by the Iranian police – not from terrorists, but from another arm of the state, the Basij militia. I can think of no other country in the world where that occurs, save Iran.
“I had a bodyguard from the normal police,” one of our former diplomats who had served in Iran told me, “protecting me from their own side”.
What Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case shows us
The story of the dual British-Iranian national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is a much worse example of this division. She has been detained in Iranian jails since April 2016, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for allegedly plotting against the regime. She was on a family visit at the time.
British ministers and diplomats have tried hard to secure her release, but they can talk only to officials within the elected Rouhani government.
Rouhani can plead with Khamenei, and those running the judiciary, for clemency. In response, Khamenei and the deep state can ignore such pleas, as they routinely do.
As Foreign Minister Javad Zarif explained: ‘We in the government have no control over the judiciary.”
All properly functioning democracies have a judicial system which is at arm’s length from the executive. But in true democracies, the police, the armed forces and the intelligence agencies are all subject to active supervision by elected parliaments and ministers. Such control is wholly absent in Iran.
It’s no wonder that Rouhani reportedly told reformist figures at a party in May 2019: “The government has no authority in foreign politics, doesn’t know where/when it is allowed or not to negotiate, Cultural policies, IRIB state TV, mosques and cyberspace aren’t under government control.”
Nobody is safe
Even senior politicians can suffer at the hands of those who really hold power.
Two loyal servants of the revolution, and candidates in the 2009 election – Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – have been under house arrest since 2011; some reactionary MPs have even called for their execution. Their “crimes”? Campaigning for a more liberal Iran.
Former president Mohammad Khatami has been declared a “non-person”. He cannot travel abroad, and the media have been prohibited from reporting his words or publishing his photograph because of his support for Mousavi and Karroubi.
When he was first elected, Rouhani indicated that he would help secure Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s release. Six years later, they remain under arrest.
Keep it in the family
There is, however, one group in Iran which does not have to go to the same lengths as ordinary people to evade the rigid codes of the Islamic Republic. These are families of the elite who run the country. They are known, sarcastically, as the “aghazadeh”, or “noble-born”.
One of the charges against the rule of the Shahs was that the country was run by a thousand families who enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. The first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini – also known in the Western world as Ayatollah Khomeini – insisted that all should lead modest lives.
Now, however, the thousand families close to the royal households have been replaced by those families close to the power centres of the Islamic Republic.
The aghazadeh have little shame about posting photographs of themselves on Instagram. Thus, the son of the retired General Saeed Tolouei of the Revolutionary Guard is shown posing with a pet tiger, driving a Cadillac and throwing a lavish party for his two-year-old daughter.
During a recent visit to London, Khomeini’s great-granddaughter, Yasaman Eshraghi, posted a picture of herself with a $3,800 (£3,100) Dolce & Gabbana handbag, alongside a BMW.
Khomeini’s great-grandson, Ahmad Khomeini, a 21-year-old cleric, was pictured at an equestrian club wearing fashionable imported gear.
Mohammad-Reza Sobhani, the son of a former Iranian ambassador to Venezuela, “systematically uploads photos of himself enjoying champagne at the pool, occasionally with naked women in the background”, the Arab Weekly has reported. “Other photos show him driving a Bugatti and lighting his cigarettes with dollar bills.”
No one in Iran believes that all this wealth could have been acquired lawfully. They are indications of not just financial but also moral corruption, which is eating away at the legitimacy of the regime from the inside.
Memories of foreign interference
Iranians have good reasons for feeling sensitive about the way they have been treated by other, more powerful, nations in the past, including by the British.
In the past century the UK occupied the country for five years from 1941-46, and has overthrown Iran’s Ieaders and installed new ones. It backed the Shah’s own oppressive regime. And it secretly supplied Iraq’s Saddam Hussein with weapons after he invaded Iran in 1980, beginning a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. There’s no collective memory in the UK about our actions. There is in Iran.
Unfortunately, the history of foreign interference in Iran is used by the governing elite to justify the regime’s repression and intolerance. But what of the future? There’s a wide spectrum of opinion in the country about where Iran should go next and how Iranians should live their lives, even if it can’t be discussed openly.
“Tehran today reminds me of Prague or Budapest in the 1980s,” one British diplomat who had served both in the Eastern bloc and in Iran told me. “There’s an uneasiness; the conversations behind cupped hands; and the appreciation that something is going to have to give.”
But what will give first?
Looking to the future
Khamenei is 79. He is not in good health. Whenever he ceases to be Supreme Leader, those around him, and those dependent on his authority, particularly the Revolutionary Guard, will strive hard to retain their enormous wealth and power.
For the future, we could see more of the same. If there were serious unrest, there could be the institution of a military dictatorship.
Alternatively, we could see Iran start down the road towards more open and democratic institutions. Some within the country have already been brave enough to call for such change.
The more that reformists can point to the benefits to Iran of cooperating with the world outside, the more empowered they will be, and the less and less convincing will be the hardliners’ position to their own people.
Mistakes on both sides
Iran is a proud country and intensely nationalistic. It cries out for respect and recognition in the international community.
It was this desire that led to the election of Rouhani and Iran’s agreement with the US, the UK and other foreign powers in 2015 to curtail its nuclear programme. If, in late 2016, a Democrat had been elected to the White House, the deal would have stuck.
Instead, Donald Trump has abandoned the deal – a reckless move that has already made the world a more dangerous place, strengthened the most hardline voices inside the regime, and increased China’s influence over Iran.
The effects of Trump’s sanctions
US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have limited Iran’s ability to import products from abroad in recent months, leading to high inflation.
Families have been badly affected by increased food costs. Beef has gone from 380,000 rials (£8) a kilo three months ago to nearly 1.2 million rials, according to CNBC, while pasta has quadrupled in price and canned tuna is nearly eight times what it was.
Subsidies and price regulations have been used by the government in Tehran to limit the effects. One family inside the country tells i that they hope that the initial economic shock is over and things are stabilising.
The government in Tehran, sensitive to the needs and opinions of its people and wanting to end Iran’s self-imposed isolation and economic suffering, could take unilateral steps in its own interests, to reset its defence and security doctrine to concentrate on the measures required to protect Iran’s territorial integrity, and abandon its focus on the hopeless aim of eliminating Israel as a state.
But that depends in turn on whether Iran is capable of domestic political reform to wrest control of all its coercive forces from the unaccountable deep state to an elected government.
The international community can help or hinder internal moves for reform – not by the covert methods it resorted to in the past with such disastrous consequences, but by understanding and honouring Iran and its people, working to end its isolation, and speaking out against the continuing excesses of the regime.