State Department battles against criticism over ‘condolences’ for Iranian president Raisi’s death

The US State Department found itself playing defence on Monday after a spokesman offered “official condolences” for the death of Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, alleged to have been responsible for ordering the murders of Iranian dissidents and brutal crackdowns on protesters.

Matthew Miller was sharply questioned by reporters at his daily briefing over the statement, which bore his name and was released minutes before the briefing took place.

In his response, he noted that the US had made similar statements after the deaths of other leaders with bloody records, such as Josef Stalin. He also insisted that the statement “in no way- in no way at all undermines” the State Department’s criticism of the Iranian government on issues of human rights and US opposition to Iranian support for various militant groups across the Middle East.

Reporters pressed Miller over whether the statement was aimed at softening ties between the US and Iran at a crucial moment for the region, or whether it was in any way related to backchannel communications reported to be occurring between US and Iranian diplomats in Oman. Miller would not confirm the existence of those talks, and denied that the statement was part of any broader political aim.

State Department defends ‘condolences’ for Iranian president Raisi’s death

Miller noted Raisi’s history of alleged involvement in gross human rights abuses against the Iranian people, before adding: “That said, we regret any loss of life. We don’t want to see anyone die in a helicopter crash. But that doesn’t change the reality of his record, both as a judge and president of Iran, the fact that he has blood on his hands.”

“There isn’t one person you can think of whom the United States did not want to see [killed] in an air accident?” The AP’s Matt Lee quipped back in response. “Ever? Really? None?”

“There were people on board who had families,” Miller responded. “We thought it was an appropriate step to take.”

Miller’s exchange with reporters — which occurred after a separate grilling on the issue of a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) call for arrest warrants for leaders of both Israel and Hamas — comes as the Biden administration is increasingly facing questions as to whether it can articulate a broader view for the Middle East and take tangible steps to achieve those goals.

On Israel, the administration’s policy continues to be derided as acquiescent by Biden’s critics on the progressive left. Detractors of the president continue to vocalise disgust over the rising death toll in Gaza and the contiued stream of US weapons to the Israeli military, while the White House and its allies have sought praise for halting one shipment of high-payload munitions. At the State Department and White House, press officials have repeatedly insisted that the Biden administration supports and is working towards achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. As of yet, however, the president seems to have been unable to budge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his government on their opposition to the formation of a Palestinian state.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller hosts a press briefing on 20 May 2024 (AP)

Iran presents a different challenge for the administration. The nuclear ambitions of Tehran’s government have long worried lawmakers on Capitol Hill, while the regime’s support for militant groups such as Hezbollah, various groups in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza present a more immediate issue for the Defense Department and the White House.

The Biden administration’s message of condolences was poorly received by some of the Iranian regime’s conservative critics in Washington.

“Offering condolences for the death of this monster is a disgrace,” wrote Senator Tom Cotton in a tweet linking to similar criticism from the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“It’s shameful that President Biden’s Administration would offer condolences for the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi – an evil tyrant who spent years repressing and butchering innocent people,” wrote one House Republican, Chuck Fleischmann, on Twitter. “Biden’s foreign policy is to appease our enemies while abandoning our allies.”

“Raisi was a murderous autocrat who brutally repressed the people of Iran. He was the architect of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism and does not deserve NATO & the free world’s condolences,” added another, Pat Fallon.

US-Iran relations soured under the Trump administration with the president’s decision to end US participation in a 2015 nuclear agreement signed between Washington, Tehran, and several European countries. The Republican president opted instead for a campaign of “maximum pressure”, which in real terms meant the reimposing of sanctions against the Iranian government and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, in early 2020. Iranian forces shot down a US drone a year prior.

Relations have improved little under Joe Biden’s presidency, though the two countries have been reported to be engaging in off-and-on backchannel conversations aimed at preventing the prolification of conflict around the region. In April, Iranian forces launched a massive wave of drone attacks against Israel, but it was repelled without damage. Israel struck central Iran with a missile in response, though the extent of the damage was never made clear.

The US president made clear in late 2022 that the US under his administration would not be re-entering the agreement signed during his previous tenure in the White House as vice president.

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