Iranian operatives’ attempt to kidnap Masih Alinejad highlights the critical role that dissidents and defectors play in combatting authoritarianism—as well as the risks autocrats will take to silence them.
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors announced charges against four Iranian nationals—including an intelligence official—they accuse of plotting to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist based in Brooklyn. The kidnapping and murder of dissidents and journalists abroad has long been a favorite tool of authoritarian regimes because such operations have the potential not only to silence the target, but to instill fear into others with a terrible message: “Nowhere is safe.”
In addition to its many overseas assassinations, the Soviet Union repeatedly abducted dissidents and defectors abroad, and the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin has continued both traditions, including with the abduction and torture of activist Leonid Razvozzhayev from Kiev in 2012. The Chinese Communist Party has conducted many similar abductions abroad, including of journalist Li Xin and bookseller Gui Minhai, both kidnapped from Thailand, and of Lee Bo, a colleague of Mr. Gui’s kidnapped from Hong Kong, to name only a few.
In recent years, less powerful authoritarian states have employed abduction and rendition to silence dissidents and terrorize members of their diaspora communities. The most high-profile of these was the abduction and brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi security forces, which U.S. intelligence officials have concluded was ordered by Mohammad bin Salman himself. More recently, Belarusian agents used a fake bomb threat to force a commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius to make an emergency landing in Minsk, whereupon they abducted two passengers, activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend. Both are now under house arrest in Minsk.
Saudi Arabia and Belarus are not global powers and have suffered some consequences for these brazen crimes, among them EU economic sanctions on Belarus (and boycott of the country by some airlines) and U.S. Treasury sanctions on a number of Saudi officials. Smaller authoritarian states should be less insulated against the consequences of murder and kidnapping overseas, because the costs to democracies of imposing such consequences are lower. But a lack of political will has prevented more dire repercussions from materializing.
In the Saudi case, a close security partnership, particularly when it comes to managing Iranian ambitions in the region, shields the regime from some consequences. Belarus, on the other hand, seems to have successfully gambled that during a global pandemic the attention paid to state-sponsored air piracy would be less than usual. After a brief period of intense coverage, media and political focus quickly moved on, allowing Lukashenko to weather the worst of the consequences while drawing closer to Putin.
These are missteps. In today’s competition of systems between liberalism and autocracy, protecting dissidents and defectors is not just a moral obligation but an essential strategic imperative. Diaspora communities in the United States constitute tremendous assets, strengthening our economy, our technological development, and our strategic posture through their insights into and connections to nations all around the world.
Which brings us back to Ms. Alinejad. As an Iranian American journalist, she successfully highlighted many of the crimes and injustices perpetrated by the Islamic Republic on a daily basis, revealing them to both Iranian and American audiences. This represents an obvious threat to the regime and a clear asset to U.S. foreign policy, which is why the U.S. and other democracies must work as hard to protect resident dissidents as authoritarians work to silence them.
Dissidents face a wide range of coercive pressures, including threats or enticements related to their families still living in authoritarian states. When more subtle schemes fail, as they did with Alinejad and Khashoggi, authoritarians may take bolder steps. The Justice Department and FBI should be commended for their diligent work on this case, which may easily have saved Ms. Alinejad from an unspeakably awful fate.
Ultimately, though, the United States and other democracies must make it a strategic and national security priority to ensure dissidents, dual-nationals, and other members of resident diaspora communities are protected from coercion, blackmail, and outright murder by authoritarian states that correctly recognize their tremendous value to democracies in an increasingly global, borderless, and ruleless competition of systems and values.
The author posted a previous version of this piece to Twitter on 7/17/21.