Biden White House stays unusually quiet on the death of Iranian president and foreign minister

Meanwhile, conservatives in Washington tweeted celebratory remarks

John Bowden
Washington DC
,Andrew Feinberg
Monday 20 May 2024 18:53 BST
Close-up of Iranian president's helicopter wreckage broadcast on TV after crash

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Proponents of a hardline strategy against Iran from around Washington celebrated on Monday as news of the apparent death of the country’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, and foreign minister came in overnight.

In a statement released under the name of State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, the US government expressed “official condolences” over the deaths of Mr Raisi and his delegation. That message was condemned by critics of Raisi’s brutal record.

“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 said.

But the White House had nothing to say as it reached noontime on Monday, a symptom of what the administration’s critics argue is a broader inability to outline a clear policy and vision for the future of the Middle East.

The Independent had reached out to administration officials for a statement regarding the reported death of Raisi, 63, whose helicopter went down in a province near the country’s border with Azerbaijan on Sunday in heavy fog and poor weather conditions. Around midnight Sunday evening, Iranian state TV reported officials including members of the humanitarian Red Crescent group as saying that “no signs of life” had been observed at the crash site.

A State Department spokesperson told The Independent that the US approach to Iran “remains unchanged” despite the death of Mr Raisi.

“The United States will continue to support the people of Iran and defend their human rights.  We will continue to confront the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism, proliferation of dangerous weapons, and advancement of its nuclear program in ways that have no credible civilian purpose,” the spokesperson said.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, conservatives in the foreign policy sphere celebrated his apparent demise.

“If Raisi is dead, the world is now a safer & better place,” wrote Senator Rick Scott on Twitter. Scott serves on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees in the upper chamber.

“That evil man was a tyrant & terrorist. He was not loved or respected & he will be missed by no one. If he’s gone, I truly hope the Iranian people have the chance to take their country back from murderous dictators.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence added: “Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is dead and the world is a safer place.”

Noting the Iranian leader’s alleged role in the murder of dissident Iranians including members of the MEK, Pence continued, “My hope and prayer is that Raisi’s death will give the people of Iran a chance to claim their birthright of freedom and end Iran’s long reign of terror.”

Allies of the MEK and the group’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), have long lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill to explicitly endorse demonstrations inside Iran calling for the people to overthrow the government. Pence’s statement, while carefully worded, is an important nod to those calls — he himself spoke at the NCRI’s summit in Paris in 2023. The State Department under President Biden vocally rejects the legitimacy of the MEK and NCRI; conversely, former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a repeat speaker at the group’s events.

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the NCRI, said Monday in a statement: “The death of Ebrahim Raisi, the clerical regime’s President represents a monumental and irreparable strategic blow to the mullahs’ Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the entire regime.”

“While honoring the 30,000 PMOI members and other combatants who were massacred—and forever remembered by the Iranian people, I emphasize that the pursuit of justice will persist until the regime’s overthrow,” she continued.

Iranians demonstrate in mourning after the reported death of Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s president
Iranians demonstrate in mourning after the reported death of Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s president (AFP via Getty Images)

A State Department spokesperson told The Independent on Sunday, hours prior to news of officials reaching the crash site, that the agency was “closely following” the situation, but had no official comment about the crash. The White House and President Joe Biden have yet to make an official statement either.

Other news on the foreign policy front appeared equally disruptive to the beginning of the week at the White House: ICC prosecutors said on Monday that they would seek arrest warrants for leaders of Hamas as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence chief, Yoav Gallant.

Critics of the administration’s Iran policy who spoke to The Independent after news of Raisi’s apparent death broke argued that the silence from the president and State Department wasn’t a sign of officials’ confidence in the veracity of the reporting. Instead, they said, it was more related to a general sluggishness that has come to define the president’s policy on the region.

The White House has not enunciated a clear policy on Iran since taking over the reins from the Trump administration in 2021. The previous administration ripped up the nuclear deal supported by Democrats including the president during the administration of Barack Obama. Biden’s team has shown no signs that the US will seek to return to an agreement with the Iranian government.

More sanctions were put into place after Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack against Israel earlier this year, but in terms of an overarching policy the Democratic president has not made clear in which direction US-Iran relations are or should be headed.

The administration has also never fully recovered from the stink of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, begun hastily under former President Donald Trump and continued under a timeline managed by the Biden White House. The final days of the pullout from America’s longest war were chaotic, bloody and disheartening — 13 US service members were killed in a suicide bomb attack outside of Kabul’s airport while horrific scenes of panic played out on the runway. One US AC-130 aircraft that departed the runway, which US forces had not secured, was found later to have human remains in its wheel well. In the end, the country returned to Taliban rule after more than 20 years of fighting.

In Gaza, the White House now faces those same charges of inaction as progressives increasingly fume that the administration is doing little to hold Israel to international standards and pouring US weapons into a conflict that has already killed more than 35,000 people, mostly civilians.

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