Will the world mourn when Putin dies? How the death of Iran's president has embarrassed the West

Tuesday, 21 May 2024 — , European Pravda
The death of Iran’s pro-Russian, anti-Western president was a loss for Russia. (This photo was taken outside the Iranian embassy in Moscow. The poster reads: "We are grieving.") But the West has unexpectedly joined in with the mourning too. Photo: AFP/Eas

The crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and several other senior officials on Sunday has caused many Ukrainians to question whether Western politicians have a proper grasp of reality, given that Iran openly supports Putin's Russia and supplies it with weapons for the war against Ukraine.

When Tehran officially confirmed the deaths of Iran’s president and foreign minister, top European politicians rushed to offer the Iranians their condolences, even expressing "solidarity" with them. 

Statements from politicians about their support for Iran just kept on coming, despite being met with outrage from ordinary citizens and politicians. Particularly surprising were the inappropriate (from our perspective) remarks by politicians whose pro-Ukrainian stance is unquestionable. Even the US, despite its image as a public enemy of Iran, made gestures of respect for the politician rightly dubbed "the Butcher of Tehran".

After this, it won’t be a surprise to hear expressions of sympathy and "liking" from Western politicians when Putin dies. Certain EU leaders have had some time to think about this already. 


The "death of Hitler" in a new style

Is it possible to imagine any Western leader expressing their condolences to the German people in 1945 on the "tragic death" of Adolf Hitler?

At first glance, the answer is clearly no – but the reality is more complex. Sympathy was indeed extended to the Germans by the then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera, who personally visited the Third Reich's ambassador in Dublin on 2 May 1945, two days after Hitler shot himself in the bunker. Additionally, on 3 May, the president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, also visited the ambassador to offer his condolences on the tragic death of the Nazi leader.

This episode remains a shameful chapter in Ireland's history, at least in the eyes of its many allies. The fact that Ireland was officially neutral during the war (even though Irish territory and ships were hit in error by several Wehrmacht attacks) has not changed the negative assessment of this political mistake.

Of course none of Ireland's partners followed Dublin's example. And five days later, Germany signed an unconditional surrender.

Until recently, it would have been hard to believe that the West’s strategy would bear any resemblance to the "Irish disgrace".

The Irish leadership has ruled out any possibility of offering condolences on the death of Vladimir Putin, who can be seen as a modern counterpart to Hitler. Last year, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that this was unlikely and he did not believe an Irish delegation would be present at the Russian leader’s funeral.

This has seemed the obvious position throughout the current global conflict. It’s as obvious as the fact that the axis of evil (primarily Russia, Belarus, Iran and North Korea) is jointly waging war on Europe and the West – something that Russia is quite open about.

But the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of several top officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has highlighted some serious problems. Too many Western leaders and diplomats have voluntarily copied the Ireland of 1945.

True, this is not about Putin (for now). But Ebrahim Raisi was no less toxic, anti-Western and anti-democratic a leader, responsible for thousands of deaths in his homeland. He had held prominent positions in the Iranian judiciary since the 1980s and was one of the key figures responsible for the execution of many thousands of political prisoners and opponents of the regime. It was then that he earned the nickname "the Butcher of Tehran". His presidency is remembered in Iran for a brutal crackdown on protests, although Raisi no longer personally handed down sentences as he did in the past.

Raisi is also co-responsible for deaths abroad, including in Ukraine. He had been president since 2021 and had supported Iran's military aid for Russia's invasion and war.

His death has demonstrated, however, that for modern European politicians, crimes committed by an international leader while in office are easily forgotten.

The helicopter carrying the government officials crashed in Iran's East Azerbaijan Province on 19 May 2024. The Bell 212 helicopter (designed by an American company) was returning from the Azerbaijan-Iran border, where the presidents of the two countries had paid an official visit to two hydroelectric facilities built on the Aras River, which marks the border between these states. Despite thick fog, the flight was not postponed due to the importance of the visit. Communication was lost as the helicopter returned with high-ranking secular and religious officials on board. The next day it was confirmed that the helicopter had crashed into a mountain, leaving no survivors.

Solidarity with the "Butcher of Tehran"

Perhaps the first high-ranking Western official to have made a controversial statement was Janez Lenarčič, the EU commissioner responsible for crisis management and humanitarian aid. He made the statement on Sunday, before official confirmation of the Iranian officials' deaths had come through. Lenarčič reported that Tehran, unable to locate the crash site, had turned to Brussels for help.

"Upon Iranian request for assistance we are activating the EU's Copernicus EMS rapid response mapping service [a service for quickly providing satellite images – EP] in view of the helicopter accident reportedly carrying the President of Iran and its foreign minister," he tweeted, adding the hashtag #EUSolidarity.

The hashtag immediately sparked unanimous outrage overnight in response to the commissioner's tweet.

"Solidarity with a terrorist regime? Does the EU know this?" "Why? They are openly intent on destroying the EU." "Are you serious? It's absolutely horrifying that the EU is declaring solidarity with the Butcher of Tehran." "Solidarity with the regime that funds EU-recognised terror groups, kills girls who dare to have their hair uncovered, and arms Russia in Ukraine? Shameful."

These are just some of the comments, with many tens of thousands of likes, that appeared under Lenarčič's tweet in the first few hours from verified users – European experts, journalists and others.

Many called for Janez Lenarčič's resignation. Influential national politicians such as Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who chairs the Bundestag Defence Committee, also expressed outrage over the tweet. The commissioner had to publicly justify himself the next morning, claiming he had been misunderstood and had meant "an act of humanity" rather than solidarity.

This blunder should have demonstrated the need to think through any statements on Iran very carefully, considering the country’s overall role and the passengers of the helicopter that crashed. However, as soon as Tehran had confirmed the death of Iran’s president and foreign minister, European politicians were unstoppable.

A flood of statements of "support" for the Iranian government began to pour out.

One of the first to react in Brussels was European Council President Charles Michel, who expressed "sincere condolences" on behalf of the entire EU.

The reaction to Michel's tweet indicated how out of kilter his statement was with the views of ordinary Europeans. Only a thousand people liked his tweet, whereas critical comments received tens or even hundreds of times more support.

"The EU? Not in my name!" exclaimed German regional MP Gert Wöllmann, tweeting a collage of over a hundred faces of Iranians killed by Raisi's regime. His comment garnered thousands of likes. The phrase "not in my name" featured in many of the more than 10,000 comments on Michel's post of condolence "on behalf of the EU".

"Oh boy, European condolences for the death of a butcher and cruel mass murderer. You don’t speak in my name," Theo Francken, a Belgian MP, said.

Unlike Lenarčič, Charles Michel did not retract or apologise for his words.

It turned out he was the first, but far from the most cringeworthy.

Josep Borrell, the head of EU diplomacy, offered condolences to the people of Iran, and this mantra about the "people" was echoed by other Western leaders.

This was in sharp contrast with the fact that until last week, European politicians never missed a chance to remind everyone that the current Iranian government (represented by Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian) oppresses its people, conducts repressions and punishes democratic expression. The plane crash left no room for this in their statements.

Astonishingly, even NATO expressed its condolences to the "people of Iran" on the death of the Iranian leaders! The appearance of this statement was extremely odd: the alliance was certainly not forced to do this; Iran is more of a problem and potential threat for NATO, and certainly not a partner; ultimately, this statement was made despite the fact that clearly not all NATO members agreed with it.

But the most bizarre statement came from Polish President Andrzej Duda, who compared Raisi's death to the death of Lech Kaczyński. The fact that the former was an ally of Putin, while the latter was Duda’s political opponent who was killed in 2010 as his plane attempted to land at a Russian air base, did not stop Duda from tweeting this nonsense, angering many ordinary Poles.

Has everyone in the West lost their minds?

The statements by Duda, Michel and Borrell clearly illustrated that even Ukraine's friends – and those who certainly do not have warm feelings towards Russia and its allies in this war – joined in the general chorus of "thoughts and prayers", sometimes playing a significant role in the surge of such statements.

And while condolences were natural coming from the Global South, and even more so from Iran's neighbours (ranging from Azerbaijan, which unintentionally played a role in the events leading up to the crash, to Türkiye, which even declared mourning in solidarity), the mass outpouring of statements from Western leaders was frankly striking, surprising and sometimes shocking.

It reached the point of absurdity.

How else can one describe the Pope's declaration of the "spiritual closeness to the Iranian people" he claimed to feel after the crash?

However, amid the amnesia that has gripped many European leaders, a few examples stand out. More precisely, there is currently only one state that has publicly declared that the death of Iran’s president is not a cause for mourning: Lithuania. 

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said: "I don't feel comfortable sending condolences while Iran is sending drones that are used against civilians in Ukraine." Several other states have not publicly stated what their Lithuanian counterpart said, but they hold roughly the same view as Landsbergis, says a source in the diplomatic corps. 

As far as other countries are concerned, the only politicians who have expressed this obvious and logical stance are outside the government – such as the MPs mentioned above. A prime example of the sane mind is this comment by former US vice president Mike Pence.

"Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is dead and the world is a safer place. Raisi was responsible for the murder of thousands of Iranian political prisoners he ordered executed in 1988, 1,500 Iranians slaughtered in the 2019 protests and the years of terrorist violence sown by Iran across the region that claimed American lives. 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," Pence said.

This is a thoroughly hawkish statement in the classic Republican spirit. It's just a shame that hardly anyone thinks like this anymore.

The US stance deserves a mention of its own. The US officially classifies Iran as part of the "axis of evil", and for a long time it refrained from making any statements or gestures regarding the disaster – until it was put to the vote at a UN Security Council meeting, and the all-or-nothing mentality disappeared. 

At the Security Council meeting on 20 May, the representative of Mozambique, which holds the Security Council presidency in May, also offered condolences to the Iranians and announced that there would be a "minute of silence". All the UN Security Council members except the US diplomats immediately stood up, while the Americans pointedly remained seated. A few seconds later, though, having sent their signal of dissatisfaction, they too stood up to pay their respects to Raisi.

What happens at the UN Security Council is always coordinated, and this episode was no exception. The US had therefore prepared to honour Ebrahim Raisi and consciously participated in this ceremony. This speaks louder than any statements – although Washington’s statement did sound relatively sane.

The whole story has been very revealing – for Ukraine as well, as it immerses us in the reality of international relations. Unfortunately these realities are cynical in the extreme, and there is almost no room left for values and principles. More precisely, these principles are valid for many, but they vanish as soon as a politician becomes a government official and begins to represent the state in the world.

From that moment on, politicians develop a desire for compromise and finding common ground with aggressors, ignoring even public opinion.

Isolated exceptions like Lithuania do not, unfortunately, change the overall picture. Moreover, there is nothing fundamentally new about this story. Many will remember that when Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the UN and one of Russia’s key international advocates, died in 2017, there was a similar outpouring of condolences, statements about the death of a distinguished diplomat, and so on...

Of course it could be argued that that was before 2022 and the world was still unaware of the nature and danger of Putin's regime. But unfortunately, given how Ukraine’s partners have acted in the case of Iran, it is clear that the problem lies elsewhere. And there is little doubt that even after Putin dies, many in the West will be eager to express their condolences, contrary to the lessons the world should have learned back in 1945.

Sergiy Sydorenko

Translated by Daria Meshcheriakova

European Pravda

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