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Ignoring Dissidents Dooms Diplomacy

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with the AFL-CIO Executive Council, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with the AFL-CIO Executive Council, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

Just over a month ago, I highlighted the case of Gubad Ibadoghlu, a prominent scholar detained in Azerbaijan

Ibadoghlu remains in the Baku Detention Center, nearly comatose from the prison authority’s poor treatment of his diabetes. Doctors say he is now immobile and will not survive for long in his current condition. The government of Azerbaijan refuses to cooperate or communicate with the family directly. 

The Biden administration has been largely silent about Ibadoghlu’s arrest and his condition. On Aug. 17, a reporter’s question about Ibadoghlu caught a U.S. State Department spokesperson flatfooted. As Ibadoghlu’s health deteriorated, the best the State Department could muster was a boilerplate statement that they were “troubled by the arrest and detention of Gubad Ibadoghlu, and we are alarmed by the reports that his health continues to deteriorate. We have urged the Azerbaijani Government on a number of occasions to immediately release him.”

During the same period, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke repeatedly with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim visited Baku. There is no indication from readouts that Blinken raised Ibadoghlu’s case or that Kim sought to visit Ibadoghlu. Both may have believed that advocating for Azerbaijan’s chief dissident would impede their hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute or an eventual peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

The idea that dissidents (and hostages) are inconveniences to brush aside in pursuit of marquee initiatives pervades State Department culture, not only with regard to Azerbaijan. Biden’s team set aside the plight of California resident Jamshid “Jimmy” Sharmahd in its recent Iran dealings. John Kerry, former secretary of State and today President Biden’s climate czar, argued that sacrificing the Uyghurs was a worthwhile price to win diplomatic agreement with China on climate.  

In reality, eschewing advocacy for freedom and human rights emboldens dictators and makes diplomatic outcomes more difficult. Iran responded both to President Barack Obama’s outreach, and later to Biden’s ransom schemes, with not only more hostage-taking and terror support, but also with the open acknowledgment that it seeks to kill Americans on U.S. soil. Blinken’s refusal to advocate meaningfully for Ibadoghlu likewise led the Azerbaijani government to believe it could get away with ransacking the New Jersey home where his son and chief advocate lives.

If the United States instead stood up for dissidents and declared that not only would repressive regimes not receive American assistance, but the State Department would also disqualify regime officials and their relatives from visas and levy sanctions against them, then the abusers might take the United States more seriously. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, for example, reversed course two decades ago on the imprisonment of Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim when the George W. Bush administration withheld more than $100 million in aid. Turkey’s government quickly released American hostage Andrew Brunson when President Donald Trump imposed steel tariffs to raise the cost of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repression. 

The reality is that both treatment of dissidents and respect for religious freedom are better indicators of sincerity and reform than the sweet nothings regime representatives might whisper to their American counterparts. It is time to demand the release of dissidents like Ibadoghlu and Sharmahd before allowing any other diplomatic processes to advance.  

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).

Written By

Now a 1945 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).

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