U.S. Offers Condolences for Death of Iran’s President; Condemns Brutality; Expects No Policy Changes 

“We’re going to continue to stand with the Iranian people" and "we’re going to continue to hold Iran accountable for all their destabilizing behavior in the region."
White House national security communications adviser John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
White House national security communications adviser John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – U.S. Spokespersons on Monday offered condolences for the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on Sunday, while they condemned his brutal suppression of the Iranian people.

They also stated, clearly and unambiguously, that they did not expect any changes in Iranian policy, or that of the U.S.

Yet there might be one small change in Tehran’s dealings with Iraq. Raisi was scheduled to visit Baghdad and Erbil at the end of May, as Hoshyar Zebari, former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq and, before that, long-time Foreign Minister, tweeted late on Sunday. 

Read More: Iranian President Raisi, delegation die in helicopter crash

Raisi’s visit, if it had taken place, would have followed the visit earlier this month of the President of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, to Tehran.

Read More: Kurdistan Region President arrived in Tehran

Barzani’s trip to Iran, in turn, followed on the first visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani to Washington, and, before that, of the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masrour Barzani, to Washington.

Read More: Biden, Austin Hold Talks with Sudani: Improving Erbil, Baghdad Ties; Reopening Pipeline; Defending Kurdistan Region

The generally successful visits to Washington provoked Tehran’s ire, manifest in several attacks by its proxies, including on the Khor Mor gas field in the Kurdistan Region.

Read More: U.S. ‘Strongly Condemns’ Drone Attack on Khor Mor Gas Field

Erbil sought to calm the situation—hence the Kurdish President’s visit to Iran—and what would have been the reciprocal visit of the Iranian president to Erbil.

Iran’s first vice president Mohammed Mokhber has been named acting president. It remains to be seen whether he might visit Erbil, or if the visit will just be canceled.

White House on Raisi’s Death

U.S.expressions of condolences for the deaths of Raisi, along with that of Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, and four others were demonstrations of decency and courtesy. But it did not diminish strong U.S. criticisms.

John Kirby, White House National Security Communications Advisor, expressed U.S. condolences, before he denounced Raisi’s record in terms of the murder and repression of the Iranian people, as well as his support for terrorism throughout the region.

Indeed, Kirby even suggested that Iranian support for Hamas had enabled the brutal cross-border assault of the terrorist group into Israel on Oct. 7, triggering the still ongoing war in Gaza.

We’re going to continue to stand with the Iranian people as they fight for their own civil rights,” Kirby told journalists on Monday, “and we’re going to continue to hold Iran accountable for all their destabilizing behavior in the region, which continues to this day.”

“President Raisi was responsible for atrocious human rights in his own country —the arrest and the physical violence against hundreds of protesters, for instance,” Kirby explained. 

Raisi was also “responsible for the support that Iran provided terrorist networks throughout the region,” Kirby continued, including “the support that he’d given Hamas [which] led to the slaughter of 1,200 innocent Israeli people on the 7th of October.”

“No question this was a man who had a lot of blood on his hands,” Kirby affirmed. 

Kirby also explained that Raisi was not really in charge. That distinction belongs to the Supreme Leader, the 85 year old Ali Khamenei.

“The Supreme Leader is the one who makes these decisions,” Kirby stated. He illustrated his point by explaining how Khamenei had rigged the last elections in Raisi’s favor by eliminating all other serious contenders.

“The Supreme Leader,” Kirby continued, “as he did in the last so-called election, made sure to stack the deck with only candidates that met his mandates.”

So, Kirby concluded, “We don’t anticipate any change in Iranian behavior, and, therefore, the Iranians should not expect any change in American behavior, when it comes to holding them accountable.”

State Department on Raisi’s Death

State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller spoke in similar terms, but added one point: with the disappearance of Raisi’s helicopter, Iran had asked the U.S. for assistance. The U.S. agreed, but in the end, could not provide it, because of logistical problems. 

“Ebrahim Raisi was a brutal participant in the repression of the Iranian people for nearly four decades,” Miller stated. “He was involved in numerous horrific human rights abuses, including playing a key role in the extrajudicial killing of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. 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.”

“Our fundamental approach to Iran has not changed and will not change,” Miller, like Kirby, affirmed.

“We will continue to support the people of Iran, to defend their human rights, their aspirations to an open, free society and democratic participation,” Miller added, “and we will continue to confront” its “support for terrorism, its proliferation of dangerous weapons,” and “its advancement of its nuclear program in ways that have no credible civilian purpose.”

Miller did explain that Iran had asked for assistance after Raisi’s helicopter went down, and “we did make clear to them that we would offer assistance, as we would do in response to any request by a foreign government in this sort of situation”

But “ultimately, largely for logistical reasons, we weren’t able to provide that assistance,” he said.

Evolution of U.S. Policy on Iran

Part of the reason why U.S. officials have stressed that Raisi’s death will not result in any changes may be that they have learned a hard lesson.

When the Biden administration first took office, it was focused in its Middle East policy on renewing the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which was concluded during the Obama administration, but which Trump left in 2018.

Yet as it turned out, Iran was not really interested in renewing that deal. That was signaled already by Iran’s presidential elections in June 2021, some five months after Biden took office. 

As Kirby suggested on Monday, Iran’s Supreme Leader had those elections rigged to favor Raisi, a well-known hardliner. That is what Khamenei wanted—not someone who would pursue improved relations with Washington.

But it took another year before Washington (or its European partners) recognized that and acted accordingly.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24, “While it’s quite clear that in 2021 the Biden administration preferred negotiating with the outgoing Rouhani government than the incoming ultra hardline Raisi government, it never took the steps to build meaningful leverage in negotiations with either one.” 

“Even by European accounts, it was Tehran that closed the door to meaningful nuclear talks in the fall of 2022,” he continued, but “the administration failed to enforce sanctions that could have impeded or raised the costs of Iran’s now irreversible nuclear gains.”