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

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.

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