An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian state TV IRIB on November 25, 2020, shows three unidentified men – one of them in a wheelchair – draped in Iranian flags and being met by officials upon their swap for freed Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for spying, in Iran. Photo: IRIB News Agency / AFP

The surprise announcement on Wednesday that Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic behind bars in Iran since September 2018, was released by the Islamic Republic in a prisoner swap generated a wave of exuberance among the ill-fated scholar’s friends and colleagues, and was also celebrated on social media by many Iranians who believed she was innocent to begin with.

Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, was in Iran in 2018 to attend the seventh International Course on Shi’a Studies in the city of Qom, and was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at Tehran’s international airport as she was leaving the country. She was tried in a revolutionary court and condemned to 10 years in prison on charges of conducting espionage for Israel.

Footage of the 33-year-old University of Cambridge alumna waiting in a lounge before being escorted to a van, looking deeply bewildered and traumatized, was released by Iran’s state TV and quickly went viral on the global broadcasters.

In a note published shortly after she was set free, Moore-Gilbert wrote that she “came to Iran as a friend and with friendly intentions, and depart Iran with those sentiments not only still intact, but strengthened.”

In what was clear testimony to her academic integrity, she acknowledged that she had been through a sad ordeal and faced injustices, but insisted her perceptions of the Iranian people were not spoiled: “I have nothing but respect, love and admiration for the great nation of Iran and its warm-hearted, generous and brave people. It is with bittersweet feelings that I depart your country, despite the injustices which I have been subjected to.”

Few details are available as to the reasons she was arrested and then sentenced to a lengthy prison term on espionage charges. Like the majority of court cases in which foreign nationals are arraigned in Iran for acting against national security and collusion with “hostile governments,” the particulars of her dossier have not been made available by the judiciary.

She had traveled to Iran on an invitation by the University of Religions and Denominations and Alzahra University, and it doesn’t make sense to conceive she had been dispatched to Iran by Israel to collect sensitive information and then fly back in a span of only five days.

While in prison, Kylie Moore-Gilbert repeatedly complained of the unsanitary conditions of the ward she was kept in, her deteriorating psychological health and being deprived of medical furlough while the Covid-19 pandemic swept through Iran’s overcrowded, squalid penitentiaries.

The decision to release the young lecturer after serving 804 days in custody is definitely a propitious development, and can be construed as an indication that Iran is able to make pragmatic decisions at critical junctures.

But Kylie Moore-Gilbert is not the only foreign national incarcerated in Iran, and as I pen these words, Ahmad Reza Jalali, an Iranian-Swedish medical doctor, in jail since 2016 on espionage allegations, is facing impending execution.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is another dual national who was detained in April 2016 and is serving a five-year term for plotting to topple the Iranian government. As she is approaching the end of her prison sentence, a new set of accusations are being brought up against her, and it is likely that her days in captivity will be extended.

The Iranian-British charity worker is perhaps the most high-profile detainee in Iran, whose plight has been raised at the British Parliament a number of times. In March 2019, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office granted her diplomatic protection, which means the status of her case has been elevated to a dispute between two governments rather than being a consular matter. Her case is now a serious sticking point between the governments of Iran and the United Kingdom.

Sharp-tongued, ardent detractors of the Islamic Republic claim Iran is engaged in a practice of state hostage-taking and imprisons foreign nationals or dual citizens with an eye to gaining concessions from other governments. Devotees of the Islamic Republic rationalize the imprisonments as a normal course of action any other government might resort to in order to armor its national security and fend off threats from foreign adversaries.

It is not my intention to weigh in on the admissibility of the two arguments. More important is the raft of reforms I believe Iran must roll out so that it doesn’t bear the reputation of a hostage-taker that uses foreign and dual nationals as bargaining chips in dealing with Western governments.

Iran’s relations with an array of countries have become strained over such judicial, legal disputes in the past, and some prudence by Tehran can avert similar feuds in the future.

First off, Iran needs a serious revision of its immigration policies. If a foreign citizen is invited to an event or asked to contribute to a project in Iran, and then goes through the administrative processes required to obtain a visa, and is granted one, it means there should not be major concerns associated with his or her background, activities, affiliations or travel history. They should enjoy a rudimentary level of protection.

Many of the foreign nationals locked up in Iran were actually detained because they had once visited Israel, Iran’s arch-nemesis, or at some point in their career collaborated with Israeli institutions. Israel is anathema to Iran and a number of other Muslim nations, but for a typical American or European citizen, it is not off-limits to travel to Israel or work with Israel-based entities.

If such involvements are utterly unacceptable by the standards of the Iranian government authorities, then the best practice would be simply to deny visas to any foreign national who has had a history of working with Israeli institutions or visiting the occupied territories. But to invite foreign nationals, regardless of their travel and professional background, grant them visas and then initiate legal proceedings against them arbitrarily while they are in Iran is bad statecraft.

Iran’s diplomatic missions don’t really need to be super quick in issuing visas: Do your homework and carry out all the investigations needed to ensure a foreign national intending to visit Iran doesn’t pose a threat, and then decide whether or not to issue a permit.

I know Iranian students who have been offered PhD positions in US universities, together with generous scholarships, and have been kept cooling their heels for more than a year, expecting decisions on their visa applications by the Department of State so that they can commence their studies – and in some cases have simply lost their positions altogether because the universities couldn’t agree to offer multiple deferrals until the visas arrived.

Also, Iran needs to reconsider fundamentally its definitions of espionage and acting against national security, which are disturbingly vague and ambiguous.

Many of the people who are tried and imprisoned for such accusations in Iran are eminent, respected academics who can have no interest in functioning as the hirelings or agents of foreign governments to target Iran’s interests. The worst crime they may have committed is voicing critical views about Iran or carrying out scholarship that casts Iran and its policies in an unfavorable light. This should not send people to prison.

A case in point is Fariba Adelkhah, the renowned Iranian-French anthropologist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies who this year was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for “conspiring against national security” and one year for “propaganda against the state.”

The Iranian government should reconcile itself with the understanding that academic research involves critical investigation of ideas, and academics are conventionally harsh and uncompromising in their attitudes toward concepts, paradigms, states and statesmen. So to bring journalists and academics to the country and expect them not to do their job professionally is indefensible.

Granting freedom to Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was swapped for three Iranian nationals jailed in Thailand, was certainly a constructive gesture by Iran. It should be hailed as the outcome of committed diplomacy and must be followed by the freedom of all dual nationals and foreign citizens detained in Iran.

And it should precipitate reforms that translate into Iran abandoning the internment of foreign nationals as a way to safeguard its national security.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.