Iran's 'Shadow Commander' Will Lose Some of His Sanctions Under Iran Deal — But There Are Still Plenty

EU and UN sanctions will be lifted from Qasem Suleimani as part of the agreement struck this week.

by Samuel Oakford
Jul 16 2015, 7:50pm

Photo via AP

Qassem Suleimani, Iran's best known general and a man the American government has accused of involvement in the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq, is set to be removed from UN sanctions­ — as well as certain European Union sanctions —as part of the Iran nuclear deal agreed to on Tuesday.

But despite initial confusion — and bouts of furor from social media, media outlets, and some politicians — Suleimani will not be taken off US sanctions lists, due to his ties to terrorism. Additionally, the far-reaching nuclear deal will have no effect on his place on separate EU sanctions lists related to the conflict in Syria, as well as terrorism.

While the UN's travel ban and asset freeze that were imposed on him will eventually be removed — pending Tehran's behavior — the sanctions that remain will continue to heavily restrict Suleimani, say experts.

"Mr. Suleimani is also listed (and will remain listed) under EU autonomous terrorism regime (CP 931) as well as Syria sanctions regime," an EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VICE News.

"The lifting of WMD nuclear related sanctions," added the official, will not affect the "other sanctions regimes, which will continue to remain in place."

Suleimani is the head of Iran's Quds Force, a special unit of the country's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). In 2011, American officials alleged that Suleimani was involved in a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador in Washington. That bizarre plot allegedly involved an Iranian agent who, said US authorities, attempted to purchase the services of a Mexican cartel that was meant to kill the ambassador with a bomb at a popular restaurant near the White House.

In the eyes of many American military officials and legislators, the Quds force is most infamous for what they claim was its role in supplying Iraq's Shia militias with explosive devices that were used, they say, to kill hundreds of American soldiers during the country's occupation.

This week, American politicians seized on Suleimani's inclusion, deep in an annex of the Iran deal.

"He's got American blood on his hands," Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) told the Daily Beast. "I'm not sympathetic to lifting sanctions on him, that's for sure."

Related: The Shady Past of the Iranian General Leading the Fight Against the Islamic State

But Treasury officials were quick to stress Suleimani would see no relief from the US, which currently lists the general under five sanctions programs: relating to the conflict in Syria; related to his ties to the Revolutionary Guard; specific anti-terrorism sanctions; nuclear non-proliferation sanctions; and Iranian financial sanctions.

"The designation under US sanctions of Qassem Suleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander, and everyone else within the IRGC's command, will absolutely remain in effect, will be vigorously enforced," a Treasury department official told VICE News.

"The US will maintain sanctions on the IRGC, the Quds Force, its leadership, and its entire network of front companies," said the official.

American sanctions — including, in the case of Suleimani, far-reaching "secondary," extraterritorial restrictions — are more powerful than those imposed by the EU, or any other individual country, in part due to the US's outsized role in the world economy. Those secondary sanctions extend to individuals caught doing business with designated parties, like Suleimani.

"No one is going to start dealing with Suleimani," Samuel Cutler, editor of the Sanction Law blog and a policy advisor at Ferrari & Associates — a law firm whose clients are facing sanctions by the US's Office of Foreign Assets Control — told VICE News. "Secondary sanctions target anyone dealing with a target, and the penalty for violating secondary sanctions is a ban from dealing with the United States."

According to Tuesday's agreement, Suleimani will be removed from the EU's nuclear-proliferation-related sanctions upon "transition date," which will occur in eight years, or when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concludes that Iran is in fact following the deal's terms, and pursuing a wholly peaceful nuclear program — whichever is earliest.

The same time frame applies to the UN asset freeze on Suleimani, while his travel ban would automatically expire in five years, or when the IAEA reaches its conclusion.  The eventual lifting of all UN sanctions was a central tenet of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action agreed to by Iran and the P5+1, which set the stage for Tuesday's deal. The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the Security Council — the US, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China — and Germany.

On Wednesday, the US circulated among Security Council members a resolution endorsing this week's Vienna deal. The text, which is expected to come to a vote on Monday, at once does away with the past resolutions, while extending some of the central restrictions they included.

According to diplomats who spoke with VICE News, an arms embargo will stick for five years and restrictions related to ballistic missiles will stay in place for eight years, as will asset freezes on individuals like Suleimani — the absolute limit for such controls. Other designated individuals, including a certain Ghasem Soleymani — a man involved in Iran's nuclear industry, and who was mistaken by some for the Quds Force commander — will see their restrictions lifted at an earlier point, when the IAEA finds Iran fulfilled preliminary steps outlined in Vienna. 

Under the resolution, restrictions on Iran's procurement of nuclear-related goods and materials will not be removed for another decade. Written into the laboriously worked-over text is a so-called "snap-back" provision that would in effect allow the US — or any other permanent member of the Council — to use its veto power to reimpose sanctions should it feel Iran is violating the terms of Tuesday's agreement.

For all the bluster directed at Suleimani from American quarters, the general's role in fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq has essentially allied him with the very American military officials who believe he killed so many of their troops. Last summer, in the midst of IS's lightning offensive in northern and western Iraq, Suleimani arrived in Iraq to oversee the Iranian presence in the country, which extends from members of the Revolutionary Guard to the country's massive Tehran-backed Shia militias. One year after IS's offensive, those Shia militias are set to maintain their outsize role as Baghdad attempts to recapture cities in Anbar province, including the capital, Ramadi.

Suleimani's intermittent presence in Iraq —often highlighted on social media — is itself a violation of the UN travel ban that was imposed on the general in 2007, the same year the US listed the Quds Force as a supporter of terrorism. But while Suleimani may flout that ban to travel to nearby countries that Tehran holds sway in, he will likely not be opening a Western checking account anytime soon.