The alleged visit to Moscow of Iranian Quds Force commander General Soleimani continues to raise speculation that Russia and Iran are working together to circumvent international sanctions.

Commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, right, greets Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei while attending a religious ceremony in a mosque at his residence in Tehran, Iran. Photo: AP

The alleged visit of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani to Moscow in late July continues to make headlines. Despite the lack of any new details about the visit, rumors persist that the trip actually happened, despite such a trip being a clear violation of international sanctions against Iran. 

Fox News, citing intelligence sources, reported the story, emphasizing that the visit took place in violation of UN Security Council sanctions imposed under Resolution 1747 of March 24, 2007.

For their part, Iranian media declined to analyze the incident, merely reprinting the information with reference to other sources. Officials also didn't issue a denial, including from General Soleimani himself.

It is worth noting that the published information contained the exact dates, times and flight numbers of Soleimani’s supposed visit. According to the “intelligence data,” the general made a round trip to Russia on a commercial flight on July 24-26, a week after the agreement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program and a week before John Kerry’s speech on the same issue before the U.S. Senate.

The main questions arising from Soleimani’s alleged visit pertain to the reasons for releasing the information, and what it means for the not-yet-approved JCPOA. Only at some far-off stage of the process are personal sanctions expected to be lifted for the general, who is allegedly involved in the military component of Iran’s nuclear program. So why did Moscow and Tehran so brazenly flout the international sanctions?

In fact, the question should be tackled from another angle: What is the source of the information, why did it appear, and was there any reason for the Quds Force commander to fly to Moscow, and on a commercial flight at that?

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First, given the tense political situation observed by everyone with bated breath and expecting its approval, primarily, in the United States, could a battle-hardened Iranian warrior have boarded a plane (most likely Aeroflot) and then strolled through passport control? Doubtful. If the parties had actually intended to meet, surely the general would have arrived on an entirely different plane through entirely different channels.

Second, what would have been the immediate need for a personal visit to Moscow? In January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with his counterpart Hossein Dehghan in Tehran, where the sides signed an intergovernmental agreement on military cooperation and discussed a range of matters, including the dispute over the supply of S-300 surface-to-air missiles.

On August 17, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a visit to Moscow for talks with Sergey Lavrov on the implementation of the JCPOA and bilateral relations. The MAKS-2015 air show, which opens on August 25 in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, will be attended by an Iranian delegation led by Vice President for Science and Technology Sorena Sattari on a fact-finding mission to learn about the latest developments in the field of aviation and space, and, importantly, to continue the negotiations on the still unresolved matter of Russian air defense systems.

If General Soleimani had something important to discuss with Russian officials, could he not have conveyed the message through a colleague at one of the above meetings?

Third, intergovernmental visits are usually arranged for officials at the appropriate level. Who is Soleimani to command an audience with Defense Minister Shoigu and President Putin? And why would the Russian president hold a private meeting with Soleimani?

Fox News also notes that Soleimani also “had fun time built into his schedule that involved Russian entertainment” (not specified). The implication seems to be that Moscow and Tehran disdain international sanctions to such an extent that even a UN and U.S.-blacklisted commander can come to Moscow and let his hair down. This image of a reformatted Axis of Evil 2.0 is rather far-fetched.

General Soleimani has indeed emerged from the shadows of late, with his involvement in foreign operations becoming public knowledge. Still, an appearance on the cover of Newsweek and the like would probably not befit such a man.

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But perhaps fundamentalists are right to assert that people need heroes not only from the moderate end of the spectrum, such as Foreign Minister Zarif, who is compared rather inappropriately to last century’s secular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, but also from the ranks of conservatives, such as the selfsame General Qasem Soleimani. Yet despite the campaign to romanticize the Quds Force commander, his formal status, albeit at the top of the Iranian military, does not warrant a meeting with the Russian president.

U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power said that the information is being investigated, adding that, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1747, all countries are obliged to comply with the restrictions on the freedom of movement of General Soleimani.

One other question remains unanswered. During the widely publicized Operation Ashura to liberate the Iraqi city of Tikrit in March this year, why were the questions on the movements of its leader, General Soleimani, not strongly addressed, for example, to Baghdad? Why did the photos of the general against Iraqi and Syrian backdrops not ruffle the world’s political feathers as much as the precise dates of his trip to Moscow, as reported by Fox News?

There may be a variety of reasons for the elaborate fantasy, perhaps the main one being to incite an atmosphere of mistrust to improve the chances of overcoming the U.S. president’s veto should the JCPOA not be approved in the first hearing, as well as to cast doubt on the role of Russian diplomacy in framing the plan of action and on Iran’s readiness to fulfill it.

Lastly, there is a counter-question: Why was it necessary to engage with Iran if the country’s leadership (without whose consent Soleimani would not have traveled) is so irrational as to jeopardize an agreement that it desperately needs? The Kremlin also has no reason to receive General Soleimani amid the other intergovernmental visits by high-ranking Iranian officials.

Despite the media attention, the entire saga smacks of a frivolous attempt to stir up the waters with no intention of catching a fish. But that is what the media likes to do every once in a while. Government officials surely have more important matters to attend to right now.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.