Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised U.S. concerns about a reported visit by the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force to Moscow last month in a conversation Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the State Department said.
The Quds Force’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani is subject to travel prohibitions under nuclear- and ballistic-missile-related sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Those sanctions are scheduled to be lifted eight years after the negotiated nuclear deal reached last month between Tehran and world powers goes into effect.
Since media accounts initially reported that Soleimani had traveled to Moscow in late July, meeting with President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s defense minister, Russia has not commented. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that it has no independent confirmation of such a trip or its purpose.
On Friday, a senior Russian diplomat denied that Soleimani had visited Moscow, according to the Associated Press.
But in a statement on the call between Kerry and Lavrov, the State Department treated it as a given, saying that Kerry had “raised his concerns about the travel to Moscow” by the Quds commander. The administration has said it also referred the potential sanctions violation to the U.N. Security Council.
The trip has become a sensitive issue in the run-up to a September congressional vote on the Iran nuclear agreement. Some lawmakers who oppose the deal have cited Soleimani’s pending removal from the U.N. sanctions list — and his presumed travel even before that happens — as an example of undeserved concessions made to Iran, and evidence that Russia, one of the six world powers that participated in the negotiations, cannot be trusted.
Soleimani oversees Iran’s support of Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Iranian military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, making him an asset to U.S. policy in the former conflict and an opponent of U.S. goals in the latter. The Quds Force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, also manages Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
In a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Iran deal, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asserted that Soleimani “has more blood of American service members on his hands than any living terrorist. Under this agreement, the sanctions [on] General Soleimani are lifted.”
The apparent reference is to Quds Force support for Iraqi Shiite militias — particularly Iran’s supply of roadside bombs that were especially lethal to U.S. forces — before the 2011 American troop withdrawal.
Kerry, testifying before the committee, responded that “the United States of America will never take the sanctions off Qasem Soleimani.”
In addition to the U.N. sanctions, Soleimani is listed under at least five separate U.S. sanctions programs related to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Syria, terrorism and other issues. None of those sanctions are to be lifted under the nuclear agreement.
The Iran nuclear deal provides that nuclear-related U.N. sanctions on sales of conventional arms and ballistic missiles — including travel bans and asset freezes applying to Soleimani — be lifted in five years for arms sales and eight years for missiles.