Will Washington Use Deaths of Top Islamic Republic Officials as Opportunity To Change Course on Tehran Policies?

Two of those killed in Sunday’s helicopter crash were instrumental in the Islamic Republic’s most regressive policies: increased oppression at home, ever-escalating Mideast proxy wars, and pursuit of nuclear weapons.

AP/Vahid Salemi, file
President Raisi at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. AP/Vahid Salemi, file

President Biden, following the deaths of multiple top officials of the Iranian Islamic Republic, has an opportunity to reverse policies that have guided his Mideast policy since day one of his administration. Will Washington seize the moment?

The ultimate power at Tehran is in the hands of one 85-year-old man, Supreme Leader Khamenei. Yet, the officials killed in Sunday’s helicopter crash, including the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, and foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, were instrumental in the Islamic Republic’s most regressive policies: increased oppression at home, ever-escalating Mideast proxy wars, and pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Washington’s first response to the deaths was similar in tone to that of Moscow, Beijing, and a host of Mideast leaders and terrorists. “The United States expresses its official condolences for the death” of Raisi, Abollahian, and members of their entourages, the Department of State said in a statement Monday. 

Raisi was known as the “butcher of Tehran” for his role in the mass hanging of thousands of Iranians when he served as top prosecutor in the 1980s. Widely despised by many Iranians, he was nevertheless groomed by the supreme leader to be his successor. 

Abdollahian, a card-carrying member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was instrumental in coordinating between elements of Iran’s anti-Israel “ring of fire”: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, Iraqi and Syrian militias, and Muslim Brotherhood adherents in Jordan. 

Mr. Biden has promoted diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic in the hope of slowing Iran’s nuclear activities. Iranian diplomats — led by Abdollahian’s acting successor as foreign minister, Ali Baghei Kani — have endlessly rejected those attempts. The Islamic Republic is now on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. 

As it pursued diplomacy, Washington has long paid lip service to Iran’s protest movement as well. “As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the Department of State’s statement said Monday.

For regime opponents, though, such a throwaway line, coupled with “condolences,” may prove insufficient. Celebration erupted on Iranian streets on Sunday as the news emerged that Raisi’s helicopter was lost in the fog, and even before the official deaths announcement.

“I received videos of celebratory fireworks lighting up the sky in Iran following the helicopter crash,” a Brooklyn-based Iranian journalist and activist, Masih Alinejad, told the Sun on Sunday evening. “Iranian social media is flooded with jokes about Ebrahim Raisi’s helicopter crash. This is how oppressed people fight back, through humor. This reaction reflects the widespread suffering and anger directed at Raisi for his role in numerous human rights abuses.”

The death of “a man with blood on his hands since age 29, should be an opportunity for Biden to show moral and strategic clarity,” an Iran watcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Behnam Ben Taleblu, tells the Sun. 

Of Mr. Biden, United Against Nuclear Iran’s CEO, Mark Wallace, adds in a statement that he “should focus on the Iranian people’s aspirations in its public diplomacy, highlighting the regime being irredeemable. The U.S. and its allies should consider covert operations — both cyber and kinetic — to deepen the divisions within the regime’s elite and expose their failings to the Iranian people.” 

Beyond Iran’s borders, meanwhile, the IRGC is urging proxies to further escalate attacks in the region. Hezbollah is now launching missiles, explosives-laden drones, and mortars ever deeper into northern Israel. In doing so it also utilizes increasingly sophisticated weapons. “The coming days will be difficult for the Zionist entity,” Abdollahian said in a statement just before his death. 

Intensifying the proxy war serves the Iranian leadership’s goals, a veteran Mideast watcher at Haifa University, Amatzia Bar’am, writes. As Tehran views it, escalation “exhausts Israel,” as well as lessening “the danger that Israel and the U.S. will forge a Middle Eastern alliance against Iran.”

While perhaps unaware of the exact date that Hamas would launch the October 7 attack, Mr. Bar’am writes, the IRGC and Hezbollah had participated in the planning. Also, as they escalate the war, the Iranians are intensifying their pursuit of a nuclear bomb. 

“In my opinion, we have achieved nuclear weapons, but we do not announce it,” a member of the Iranian parliament, Ahmad Bakhshayesh Ardestani, said on May 10. “It means our policy is to possess nuclear bombs, but our declared policy is currently within the framework of the JCPOA.”

Perhaps alarmed by such statements, President Biden’s top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, traveled to Oman last week for indirect talks with Iranian counterparts, hoping to de-escalate regional tensions and renew nuclear diplomacy. 

As vice president in the Obama administration and throughout his White House term, Mr. Biden has attempted to appeal to Tehran’s better angels through diplomacy. During that time, Mr. Khamanei hand-picked to power positions some of the regime’s most extreme politicians, including the men who died Sunday. Is an American course correction coming?


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