U.S. ‘Condolences’ for Raisi Reflect a Delicate Diplomatic Ritual

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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 Mr. 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.

A terse statement, issued on Monday under the name of the State Department spokesman, 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 American 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 Mr. Raisi, something Mr. 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 like the Soviet Union, North Korea and Venezuela, and have handled in varying, and sometimes contorted, ways.

In the case of Mr. Raisi, Mr. Miller’s conspicuously wooden statement simply acknowledged the president’s demise — along with that of Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Biden as too conciliatory toward Iran.

“Offering condolences for the death of this monster is a disgrace,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican, wrote on the social media site X.

It should be noted that, when questioned at the briefing, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Obama was more descriptive, however, when former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died from natural causes in November 2016. Mr. 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 Mr. Castro, a repressive strongman and longtime Soviet ally who had helped lead the world to the brink of nuclear war, Mr. 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 Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a fierce critic of the Castro regime, declared the statement “pathetic.”)

Those leaders, at least, merited presidential statements, unlike Mr. Raisi, whose passing was outsourced to the State Department and its spokesman, Mr. 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 the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, the White House simply announced that Mr. 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 the Soviet leader, Joseph 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 American 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 U.S.S.R. — 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.”



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