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regular-article-logo Monday, 24 June 2024

US ‘condolences’ for Iran president Ebrahim Raisi reflect a aelicate diplomatic ritual

A terse statement, issued under the name of a State Department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, betrayed no grief for the Iranian leader, who frequently railed at the United States and is believed to have at least condoned attacks on US troops by Iranian-backed proxy forces in Iraq and Syria

Michael Crowley Washington Published 21.05.24, 02:02 PM
People carrying images of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi mourn after the helicopter carrying him and Iran's foreign minister crashed Sunday in northwest Iran, killing everyone aboard, in Valiasr Square in Tehran, Monday, May 20, 2024. In the eyes of the Biden administration, Ebrahim Raisi was a brutal tyrant, a sworn enemy and a threat to world peace, but within hours of confirmation that Raisi was killed in a weekend helicopter crash, the U.S. State Department announced its “official condolences” for his sudden death.

People carrying images of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi mourn after the helicopter carrying him and Iran's foreign minister crashed Sunday in northwest Iran, killing everyone aboard, in Valiasr Square in Tehran, Monday, May 20, 2024. In the eyes of the Biden administration, Ebrahim Raisi was a brutal tyrant, a sworn enemy and a threat to world peace, but within hours of confirmation that Raisi was killed in a weekend helicopter crash, the U.S. State Department announced its “official condolences” for his sudden death. (Arash Khamooshi/The New York Times)

In the eyes of the Biden administration, Ebrahim Raisi was a brutal tyrant, a sworn enemy and a threat to world peace.

But within hours of confirmation that Raisi, who had served for three years as Iran’s president, was killed in a weekend helicopter crash, the U.S. State Department announced its “official condolences” for his sudden death.

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A terse statement, issued Monday under the name of a State Department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, betrayed no grief for the Iranian leader, who frequently railed at the United States and is believed to have at least condoned attacks on U.S. troops by Iranian-backed proxy forces in Iraq and Syria.

The statement drew swift outrage from vocal critics of Iran’s government, who argued variously that the United States should say nothing at all or harshly condemn Raisi, something Miller proceeded to do later, when questioned by reporters at a daily briefing.

It underscored the tightrope the U.S. government must walk after a reviled foreign leader dies, as it balances the need for empathy for populations who may be in mourning against the need to speak the truth and clearly articulate American principles. It is a quandary that U.S. officials have faced repeatedly over the years after the death of hostile dictators in places including the Soviet Union, North Korea and Venezuela, and have handled in varying, and sometimes contorted, ways.

In the case of Raisi, Miller’s conspicuously wooden statement simply acknowledged the president’s demise — along with that of Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, and others on the helicopter — before striking a political note that Iran’s political establishment would find anything but consoling.

“As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Miller’s statement said.

It was hardly the Hallmark card one might send to a grieving friend or co-worker. But it still angered Iran hawks, who are quick to see Biden as too conciliatory toward Iran.

“Offering condolences for the death of this monster is a disgrace,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote on the social platform X.

It should be noted that, when questioned at the briefing, Miller was scathing: “We have been quite clear that Ebrahim Raisi was a brutal participant in the repression of the Iranian people for nearly four decades,” he said. “Some of the worst human rights abuses occurred during his tenure as president — especially the human rights abuses against the women and girls of Iran.”

Whatever its merits, the statement had a clear precedent: After the March 2013 death from cancer of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, President Barack Obama released a statement aimed at the country’s people that expressed no actual remorse for the anti-American strongman.

“At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” Obama said. “As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Obama was more descriptive, however, when former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died from natural causes in November 2016. Obama, who had recently restored diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana after many decades, opened his statement by saying that he extended “a hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

But when it came to the substantive record of Castro, a repressive strongman and longtime Soviet ally who had helped lead the world to the brink of nuclear war, Obama — likely mindful of his fragile new diplomatic opening — carefully avoided judgment.

“History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” his statement said. (Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a fierce critic of the Castro regime, declared the statement “pathetic.”)

Those leaders, at least, merited presidential statements, unlike Raisi, whose passing was outsourced to the State Department and its spokesperson, Miller.

Some leaders are so reviled, and relations with their countries so poisoned, that no statement can do the job. Rather than issue a direct statement after the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in December 2011, the White House simply announced that Obama held a midnight phone call with his South Korean counterpart “to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula following the death of Kim Jong Il.”

More often there is complicated nuance, even in the cases of infamous tyrants. Upon the March 1953 death following a stroke of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, it was left to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to issue a response.

As an Army general, Eisenhower had led Allied forces in Europe in common cause with Stalin’s Soviet army against Nazi Germany. But by 1953, Stalin was a bitter U.S. enemy. In a statement after Stalin’s stroke, Eisenhower offered no assessment of the man himself, saying that “the thoughts of America go out to all the peoples of the USSR — the men and women, the boys and girls — in the villages, cities, farms and factories of their homeland.”

“They are the children of the same God who is the Father of all peoples everywhere. And like all peoples, Russia’s millions share our longing for a friendly and peaceful world,” Eisenhower said.

This was true, he added, “regardless of the identity of government personalities.”

The New York Times News Service

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