Just over two weeks ago, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“We will not tolerate any attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Kim declared. But the Biden administration tolerated just that. The best the State Department could do in the wake of an Azerbaijani aggression that has so far driven close to three-quarters of Nagorno-Karabakh’s indigenous population out of the region is to say “we are quite serious” about the U.S. desire to have an international monitoring mission. The White House has yet to declare a cessation of military aid to Azerbaijan, even as Congress grows more frustrated with its tepid response.
While Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has promised to ensure the rights of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population, this is little comfort. Aliyev has never kept a promise, nor has the West held him to account for his duplicity. Further, Azerbaijanis in practice have no rights. Freedom House ranks the country alongside China and the military junta-controlled Myanmar in freedom. It ranks below Russia, Iran, and Cuba.
To understand how Azerbaijan represses its own people, consider the case of Gubad Ibadoghlu, a prominent scholar the Aliyev regime detained. Aliyev’s security services said they arrested Ibadoghlu for allegedly being in possession of counterfeit currency. The problem is that they first reportedly tried breaking into his safe, and when they were unable to crack it, they simply left a paper bag with counterfeit currency in a paper bag on top. The alleged setup fails the logic test: Why would someone have a safe and keep their money on a bookshelf?
The episode is straight from the autocrat’s playbook. It does not pass the smell test. Nor does the whispering campaign about Ibadoghlu’s alleged religiosity. Put aside that religiosity is not a sin so long as no one tries to impose it on others. The fact is Ibadoghlu reportedly has one of the most impressive collections of wine that he shared openly with friends and associates.
The real reason Aliyev may have acted against Ibadoghlu, his son Emin Bayramli told me, is that he was researching alleged corruption on the part of firms linked to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in portions of Nagorno-Karabakh seized by Azerbaijani and Turkish forces in November 2020. Ibadoghlu also researched Azerbaijani “caviar diplomacy” in the United Kingdom, where Aliyev’s influence is high because of his partnership with BP (formerly British Petroleum).
Dictatorships thrive in darkness. This is why silence is never the answer when dictators arrest dissidents. After Ibadoghlu’s detention, his son Emin Bayramli worked to keep his father in the limelight and to focus attention on the conditions in which Azerbaijan kept him confined.
It was an effective strategy that annoyed the Aliyev regime. Sometime late on Aug. 18 or in the early morning hours of Aug. 19, someone entered the New Jersey house in which Bayramli lived and ransacked his room. An investigation is ongoing, but Azerbaijani agents or those working on their behalf are among the chief suspects that federal law enforcement now investigate, Bayramli told me on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
The case should worry all Americans. Dictatorships are becoming increasingly bold about targeting Americans not only abroad, but also inside the United States. Few remember that when Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran and took 52 American diplomats hostage, President Jimmy Carter did not sever relations. He did that only five months later when the Iranian embassy in Washington, DC, organized the assassination of an Iranian dissident in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. That reaction set a red line that Iranian revolutionaries abided by until recently, even after repeatedly targeting dissidents in Europe.
Those red lines have eroded. The Iranian government, for example, has sought to kidnap Iranian-American dissidents from New York. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi openly brags about putting hits on former American officials Mike Pompeo and Brian Hook. Erdogan’s bodyguards have attacked American protesters in the heart of Washington, DC. The Bayramli case marks the first apparent attempt by the Azerbaijani regime to target dissidents in the United States. That should be a wakeup call.
Aliyev is riding high. He has conquered Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory Azerbaijan has never truly controlled, and expelled the indigenous Armenian population. He has called the American bluff without consequence. He believes, quite literally, that he can get away with murder. Quite simply, Aliyev is out of control. Words are not enough. The Biden administration needs to act now to stop Azerbaijan from taking its repression on the road, right into the heart of America.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).