How New Zealand could act as a broker between Australia and Iran for return of detained academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert

New Zealand could broker the return of Australians detained in Iran because it did not join a coalition of allies to patrol waters off Iran and Yemen, an academic says.

In August, Australia joined the US-led coalition of countries protecting oil tankers and cargo ships from attack by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz.

A month later, an Australian academic, University of Melbourne Middle East politics expert Kylie Moore-Gilbert, was identified as a prisoner in Iran since October 2018.

Two other Australians have been detained in Iran from a separate incident. Travel bloggers Mark Firkin and Jolie King were reportedly arrested for flying a drone near a military area.

Waikato University Professor Al Gillespie told Newshub Iran is "playing a dangerous game" by "taking a poke" at countries it deems to be a threat.

Gillespie said the detained academic is "in a very difficult position right now". 

She has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to reports.

"There's a good chance there could be a reprisal strike against Iran. Effectively she would end up being a hostage in the middle of a war zone."

Tensions in the region have increased since Saudi Arabian oil facilities were attacked over the weekend, and the US is pointing blame at Iran.

US President Donald Trump said on Monday there is "reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification".

Yemini rebels have taken responsibility for the strikes. But Gillespie said it would appear they had help from somewhere and whether it was Iran is a matter of "conjecture".

Iran now says it is ready for war.

He said if a conflict breaks out, "then any negotiations for [Moore-Gilbert's] release will be moot - it won't happen because she'll become part of a larger debate".

"But if the conflict doesn't break out, and they're looking for a broker, New Zealand would be well-placed because we recently said we would not join the coalition."

Defence Minister Ron Mark said last month no formal request for assistance from New Zealand had been made to contribute to patrolling the Strait of Hormuz following the seizure of oil tankers by Iran.

Britain had asked the Government if it had the capacity to contribute, but the minister said New Zealand did not have any boats available to send.

"We opted to stay out of the conflict which was the right choice politically. Because we're not part of the group, we are well-placed to be a negotiator," Gillespie said.

"Anything we can do to help our Australian friend we should do. The Australians, like anyone, will want their citizens back and if there's any chance of getting them, I'm sure they would look into that."

University of Melbourne Middle East politics expert Kylie Moore-Gilbert, identified as a prisoner in Iran since October 2018.
University of Melbourne Middle East politics expert Kylie Moore-Gilbert, identified as a prisoner in Iran since October 2018. Photo credit: AAP

New Zealand is a member of ANZUS and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance involving the US and Australia, and that could deter Iran's trust, Gillespie said.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters has called for a peaceful resolution to US-Iran tensions.

In May, he expressed concern at Iran announcing it will gradually reduce the commitments it agreed to under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal.

Trump reinstated sanctions on Iran after pulling out of the deal brokered by former US President Barack Obama.

Since then, tensions between Iran and the US have escalated, with the US blaming Iran for four oil tanker blasts in waters off the UAE in May.

Gillespie said the country to negotiate with Iran would need to be reasonably neutral to the situation like New Zealand, or select European nations.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said the cases of those detained in Iran are not related to diplomatic tensions.

"If she's just a normal prisoner, caught for some alleged criminal offence, it's not really a United Nations type matter - it's more a bilateral type matter," Gillespie said.

"My expectation is that she actually is a hostage, in which case it becomes much more political and it'll escalate."

New Zealand has had an Embassy in Iran's capital Tehran since 1975 making it New Zealand's longest-standing mission in the Middle East. 

In 2017 the value of New Zealand exports to Iran was NZ$120 million.

Winston Peters was not available for comment.