Thailand’s release of Iranian prisoners: a win for Tehran

Photo: Hédi Benyounes / Unsplash

The release of three Iranians accused of terrorism in Thailand may have secured the freedom of an Australian academic but the swap is set to make Middle Eastern politics more volatile.

By Umair Jamal

In November, Thailand freed two Iranians jailed over a botched 2012 bomb plot in Bangkok. A third Iranian held by Thai authorities was pardoned in August.

The announcement of the Iranian prisoners’ release came after Tehran freed Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian-British academic, imprisoned for alleged spying since September 2018. Thailand’s release of the Iranian prisoners may have been facilitated by Australia’s mediation efforts.    

However, few countries will welcome the release of the Iranians. The Israeli government, as well as Thai authorities, asserted that the failed 2012 bombing was aimed at Israeli diplomats in the country.

Though Thailand may want to remain neutral, the release of the prisoners has implications for Middle East geopolitics, particularly Iran and Israel’s covert aggression in the region.

Thai authorities, Australian government stay quiet on prisoner swap

According to Thai officials, the three Iranians were not swapped for any other prisoners. Thai authorities have not publicly acknowledged that the release of the Iranian prisoners involved the Australian government at any point.

Thailand’s deputy attorney general, Chatchom Akapin, said in a statement that Thai authorities had approved the transfer of the prisoners under a mutual treaty on detainees. “These types of transfers aren’t unusual,” he said. “We transfer prisoners to other countries and at the same time receive Thais back under this type of agreement all the time.”

Iranian state media has claimed that the release was part of an exchange deal for Moore-Gilbert, though Iran has shared few details on her release.

Similarly, the Australian government has been silent regarding the circumstances around the deal. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has only welcomed the release of Moore-Gilbert.

Morrison recently said that he was “thrilled and relieved” that the academic had been released. “The injustice of her detention and her conviction, Australia has always rejected, and I’m just so pleased that Kylie’s coming home,” he told local network Nine.

What does the Iranian prisoner release mean for Israel?

The Iranians’ failed plot was exposed when explosives detonated, seemingly by accident, in a house in greater Bangkok on February 14, 2012.

At the time, Iran was allegedly also involved in two bombing attempts in India and Georgia against Israeli diplomats. Tensions between Iran and Israel had heightened over Iran’s nuclear program and one of Iran’s top nuclear scientists was killed in an attack which Tehran said was the work of Israel’s spy agencies.

The Israeli government has not commented on the release of the Iranians from Thailand. However, Israel’s former ambassador to Thailand, Itzhak Shoham, has said that the three Iranians should be rotting in prison for planning an attack on Israeli diplomats in Bangkok.

“I don’t know anything about this deal beyond what was published. Of course it saddens me to see the pictures as [the Iranians] celebrate instead of rotting in prison, if they haven’t [sic] already been executed,” Shoham told Channel 12 news.

The timing of the release is very important for both Israel and Iran as tensions between the two countries are rising again.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Photo: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks ago, a top Iranian nuclear and military scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated near Tehran in broad daylight. Iran accused Israel of carrying out the killing and promised to take revenge. 

The release of three Iranians may encourage Iran, which Israel and others accuse of hostage diplomacy, to detain more foreign nationals. A report published by Al Jazeera notes that Iran detained Moore-Gilbertafter finding out that she was in a relationship with an Israeli.

In the wake of Mohsen’s killing, the Israeli government has urged its citizens to avoid traveling to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—two states that recently established diplomatic ties with Israel—citing heightened security threats from Iran.

Many observers following Middle Eastern politics warn that the killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist was likely a ploy by Israel meant to undermine the possibility of talks between the incoming government in the United States and Iran over its nuclear program. “If [the Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad was indeed behind the assassination, Israel had a closing window of opportunity in which to carry it out with a green light from an American president, and there seems little doubt that Trump, seeking to play a spoiler role in his last weeks in office, would have given approval, if not active assistance,” argued Julian Borger in The Guardian. In the aftermath of his election defeat, Trump reportedly asked for military options on Iran from his military advisors.

The Obama administration reportedly opposed Israel’s plans to assassinate Iranian scientists in 2013. “It would be a fair guess that Joe Biden would also oppose such assassinations when he takes office on 20 January,” argued Julian.

Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that “The objective behind the killing [of Mohsen] wasn’t to hinder the nuclear program but to undermine diplomacy.”

In the coming weeks, we may see increased signs of covert aggression between Iran and Israel. After the release of three Iranians, Tehran may again plan to target Israeli diplomats or citizens in Thailand or elsewhere. The added layer to heightened tensions between Iran and Israel will only add to the Middle East’s regional instability.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15