The one thing US fears after Iranian president’s death

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The Biden administration is closely watching how Iran reacts to the sudden death of its president, expecting the regional status quo to hold while still wary that one allegation could escalate tensions with Israel.

For now, senior U.S. officials expect few — if any — changes in the way of Iran’s policies before the Islamist-led country elects a new president following the weekend helicopter crash that killed Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 85, remains the country’s top authority. The immediate political uncertainty revolves around who will be elected the next president, a constrained process effectively controlled by the country’s hardline clerical leaders. A more long-term question — one Iran is likely better prepared for — is who will succeed Khamenei as supreme leader: Raisi had been a potential candidate and his death adds more succession uncertainty.

Washington is watching to see how Iran handles the political crisis and what it means for the supreme leader competition, the timing of which could depend on Khamenei’s health. But the Biden administration believes Iran will be too gripped with its immediate conundrums to make major changes to its regional policies, including its aid to proxy forces that bedevil many Arab states, Israel and the United States.

“I am not betting on any policy changes,” said a senior administration official, like five others granted anonymity to discuss internal thinking about the sensitive situation.

Matthew Miller, the State Department’s top spokesperson, on Monday offered the administration’s “official condolences” for Raisi and Amirabdollahian’s death, a statement that raised eyebrows given the two countries have been adversaries for decades. “As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Miller also said in the statement.

Iran asked the United States for assistance as it sought to find the wreckage of the chopper, Miller said during a news briefing Monday. “We said that we would be willing to assist — something that we would do with respect to any government in this situation,” Miller said. “Ultimately, largely for logistical reasons, we weren’t able to provide that assistance.”

While there’s a sense of calm now, that wasn’t the initial sentiment when state-run Iranian media first reported on Raisi’s suspected death.

U.S. officials spent Sunday anxiously awaiting updates from the search for the missing helicopter and wondered for hours how the crash could alter the dynamics of the Middle East.

As the search dragged on for nearly half a day, U.S. officials also listened to see who, if anyone, Iran might blame for the crash, according to three senior administration officials not authorized to publicly discuss internal conversations.

There was fear that Tehran might quickly allege that Israel and the U.S. had sabotaged the transport, even though there was no initial intelligence to suggest anything other than a crash in bad weather.

For a little while, it was not a crazy question to ask ‘Is this how World War III begins?’” said one of the officials.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said “the United States had no part to play in that crash.”

It was just weeks ago when, after Israel killed some top Iranian military commanders in Syria, Tehran retaliated by launching more than 300 drones and ballistic missiles at Israel, some of them coming directly from Iran for the first time since the Islamist regime assumed power in 1979.

President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. military to thwart the attack in real time, and some Arab states assisted as well, helping Israel protect its people, military installations and civilian infrastructure. Israel responded with a limited strike near the city of Isfahan, home to a military base that includes Iran’s fleet of F-14 Tomcat fighter jets.

Soon after, Iranian state media focused on a return to normalcy in the country, a sign that the reprisal had appealed enough to the domestic audience. Tensions calmed down soon after, with neither the U.S., Israel nor Iran aiming to escalate any further.

As events unfolded Sunday, U.S. officials waited to see if Iran would blame Israel instead of saying it had failed to protect its president, whether due to human error or the use of an old helicopter, two officials detailed. Such a concession was always unlikely. Still, as long as Iran didn’t pass the blame, the chances of a wider regional conflict remained low, the officials added.

Austin also said Monday “we continue to monitor the situation but we don’t have any insights into the cause of the accident at this point,” an incident he called “very unfortunate.”

For now, Mohammad Mokhber, Iran’s first vice president, is serving as Raisi’s acting replacement until new elections can be held.

Iranian vice presidents are relatively low profile. But Mokhber has already caught the attention of the Biden administration for his role in supplying drones and missiles to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine.

In October 2022, Mokhber was one of a delegation of senior Iranian officials who traveled to Moscow to finalize a sale of Iranian drones and ballistic missiles to Moscow. U.S. officials have condemned Iran’s provision of arms to Russia, particularly the drones that Russia uses to target Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.

A former member of the medical corps of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Mokhber is a conservative politician with deep ties to the supreme leader, according to media reports.

He held senior positions in Setad, a conglomerate controlled by Khamenei that was involved in efforts to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, as well as the Mostazafan Foundation, a charity also controlled by Khameni that is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.