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US monitors developments in Iran as it accelerates a defense pact with Saudi Arabia

The bilateral security agreement with Riyadh is ‘near-final’ according to Washington, which has offered ‘official condolences’ to Tehran for the death of President Raisi in a helicopter crash

accidente del presidente irani
The remains of the helicopter in which the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, was traveling.West Asia News Agency (via REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

It took hours for the United States to issue an official reaction to the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his entourage. When it did so, it was to offer “official condolences” in the coldest possible terms, and to categorically reject accusations from Tehran that the U.S. might have had any responsibility for the helicopter crash. With the Middle East in the midst of serious tensions due to the war in Gaza, and as it finalizes a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia that would protect Riyadh from its great regional adversary, Washington does not expect major changes in the transition process in Tehran, but remains very attentive to any factor that could trigger an escalation in tensions.

“The United States expresses its official condolences for the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other members of their delegation in a helicopter crash in northwest Iran. As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said the State Department in a statement. The succinct document was signed not by the head of U.S. diplomacy, but by his spokesman, Matthew Miller.

The U.S. government does not consider that the disappearance of Raisi and Absollahian will have major effects on Iranian foreign policy. The ultra-conservative president, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of political opponents in the 1980s, was considered a likely candidate to succeed the spiritual leader of the regime, Ali Khamenei — in power since 1989 — but he did not play a great role in internal politics or the external affairs of government. “His authority was constrained by the Iranian supreme leader, who has the highest command in the Islamic Republic,” recalls Jonathan Panikoff, of the Atlantic Council think tank.

The United States insists that, for now, everything remains as it was. “We’re going to continue to hold Iran accountable for all their destabilizing behavior in the region, which continues to this day,” the White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby promised this Monday.

The two countries are irreconcilable adversaries—over Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s support for radical Islamic militias, human rights violations in Iran, and the regime’s growing closeness to Russia and China, among other things—but they share an interest in ensuring that the volatile situation in the Middle East does not get even more complicated.

Both already experienced a moment on the brink of the abyss in April, when Iran tried to hit Israel with hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for that country’s attack on its consulate in Damascus, and American planes came out in Israel’s support to shoot down most of those projectiles. Washington and Tehran have maintained informal contacts since then to try to avoid new escalations that could spark a regional conflict with unpredictable consequences.

Last week both governments held indirect talks in Oman, the first since January. At these talks, the United States was represented by its envoy for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, and its representative for Iran, Adam Palley. Under Oman’s intermediation, Washington tried to convince its antagonist of the need to control the militias that Iran helps in the region with weapons, financing and training, and which since the beginning of the war in Gaza have increased their hostile actions against U.S. troops in the Red Sea, Iraq and Syria.

In a conciliatory gesture, and after voices in Iran accused the United States of responsibility in the helicopter crash due to its harsh sanctions that prevent the supply of adequate spare aviation parts, Iran pointed to a technical failure as the cause of the accident. The American-made aircraft had been in circulation for more than half a century.

Washington, for its part, has stated time and time again that it had nothing to do with the accident. “We continue to monitor the situation,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters after a virtual meeting of Ukraine’s allies. “But we don’t have any insights into the cause of the accident at this point.”

The incident does serve as a warning to the government in Washington, said Brian Katsulis, from the Middle East Institute think tank, in a video conference on Monday. “It is another wake-up call for American foreign policy” about “the challenges that Iran presents today and the challenges that it will pose in the near-term future, not only to the security interests of the United States, but also to the broader regional security.”

Raisi’s death comes at a key moment for the United States in the region. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, touring the area, had just completed a visit to Riyadh to try to close negotiations for a defense pact with its Arab ally. Riyadh aspires to an agreement to collaborate on a civil nuclear energy program and a mutual defense agreement.

This pact would be part of a broader agreement, by which the United States hopes that Israel and Saudi Arabia will approve the normalization of their diplomatic relations. Such a step would consolidate a protection network against Iran, and Washington hopes it would also pave the way for the future implementation of a Palestinian State. The frontal opposition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to any type of Palestinian sovereignty is blocking, at least for the moment, a more ambitious trilateral project, which is why Washington has chosen to focus on the bilateral agreement with Riyadh.

“Jake was able to make significant progress on the bilateral elements of what we believe would be a truly historic deal that would lead to a more integrated region,” Kirby noted on Monday. The agreement is already “near-final,” according to the spokesperson, who, however, declined to give a date for when the finalized deal might be announced.

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