Among the big winners in the agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, count a notorious and shadowy Iranian general who helped Shiite militias in Iraq kill American soldiers and who has come to the rescue of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
You’ll find his name, Qasem Soleimani, buried in an annex (PDF) of the unremittingly dense Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, along with some of his colleagues from the senior ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as its various divisions and corporate fronts. They’ll all be granted some sanctions relief as part of the U.S.-brokered deal to curtail Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.
That Soleimani—who runs Iran’s elite paramilitary and covert operations group, the Quds Force—was even on the list appeared to catch some U.S. officials by surprise. A senior administration official briefing reporters on Tuesday morning didn’t have a ready response when asked when and why Soleimani was added. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly denied that the 58-year-old general was on the list to be freed from the sanctions yoke. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, agreed, saying Soleimani—whom the U.S. accused in 2011 of plotting to launch a terrorist attack in the United States—had been confused with someone else with a similar name.
They were all wrong—or maybe didn’t want to be right. Soleimani is, in fact, on the list, a Treasury Department official later confirmed to The Daily Beast. And his presence definitely surprised some powerful lawmakers, who are already sharpening their knives for a filleting of the Iran deal.
“He’s got American blood on his hands,” Senator John Cornyn said of Soleimani. “I’m not sympathetic to lifting sanctions on him, that’s for sure.”
“Soleimani is the guy that sent the copper-tipped IEDs into Iraq,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, referring to powerful improvised explosive devices, which Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford testified last week were responsible for the deaths of 500 soldiers and Marines. “That is really unbelievable,” McCain said when asked about Soleimani’s name showing up in the bowels of the Iran nuclear deal.
And Soleimani is not alone. The man whom retired general and ex-CIA director David Petraeus once called “truly evil” is joined in the get-out-of-sancitons club by other military officers, including a Revolutionary Guard Corps general, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who said that “erasing Israel off the map” should still be Iran’s objective, even if the country’s isn’t allowed to build a nuke.
Joining him are Brigadier General Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, a former interior minister and minister of defense who also advocated attacking Israel; Brigadier General Mohammad Naderi, who runs Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (also getting sanctions relief); and Brigadier General Hossein Salami, who said Iran’s quest for modern weapons was guided not by military strategy, but by religion.
There are plenty more where they came from. But why bother counting? The entire Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard’s Air Force, and the Al-Ghadir Missile Command are also getting sanctions relief in the years to come—presuming that Iran hasn’t reneged on its commitments by then or a future U.S. president hasn’t tried to roll back the deal, as Republican contenders Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Rick Perry have all said they’d do if elected.
This international rogues gallery of spies, soldiers, and anti-Semites were thrown into the deal like ingredients in a stew. Who put them there is still unclear. But Kerry’s apparent misunderstanding aside, U.S. officials would have negotiated every name on the list, making it almost impossible that Soleimani was snuck in by surprise.
There are hundreds of companies, government entities, and individuals slated to get sanctions relief. “Presumably, in the beginning, the Iranians put a list across the table and said, ‘We want these people off the sanctions list,’” Zachary Goldman, a former senior official in the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, told The Daily Beast.
Goldman, who helped develop Iran sanctions policy, said that an array of U.S. government departments review such proposals, just as they do when deciding whether to impose sanctions. Obama administration officials were certainly aware of who was on the final list of the Iran agreement, Goldman added.
Sanctions relief is the very heart of the nuclear deal, but you need a panel of experts to explain how it works. Annex II, and its corresponding “attachments,” describe the international choreography by which Iran submits to a series of inspections of its nuclear facilities by United Nations experts and, in return, the United States and the European Union lift one set of sanctions after another.
There are two “phases” in which sanctions are removed. The first should come relatively soon—probably in the next few months—after Iran makes good on its commitments and the inspectors give the thumbs up. Then the Europeans and the Americans lift a raft of sanctions, mostly on companies that have had some connection to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Next comes phase two. That’s much later—as many as eight years from now. And this is the round where Soleimani and his IRGC buddies finally get their big day. But only the Europeans will be helping them out.
Why? The Obama administration has opted only to lift nuclear-related sanctions, because, it says, the Iran deal is strictly limited to the country’s nuclear program, not its status as a leading sponsor of global terrorism or its abysmal human-rights record. Granting concessions to Soleimani, who is accused of helping to kill American soldiers, propping up a brutal dictator who gassed his own people, and conspiring to blow up a Saudi Arabian official in a popular Washington, D.C., restaurant frequented by U.S. politicians, would eviscerate the Obama administration’s entire premise in the Iran negotiations.
Why the Europeans felt fine giving Soleimani a hand is still unclear. But even those who will be unshackled from U.S. sanctions are hardly free of terrorist ties. “Some of them are also involved in terrorist activities or human-rights abuses, and yet they’ve only been hit for their proliferation activities,” Matthew Levitt, the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute, told The Daily Beast. Like them, Soleimani will have his reward, regardless of who’s giving it to him. He and his fellow generals “will almost definitely be able to open bank accounts in Europe,” Levitt noted.
Plenty of financial penalties will remain in place. But Obama officials are sensitive to any lightening of Soleimani’s load.
“His designation under U.S. sanctions will in no way be impacted by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached today,” the Treasury official said. She added that “secondary sanctions remain in place on the U.S. side,” which means that anyone or any company doing business with Soleimani can also be penalized.
Even if sanctions aren’t lifted on Soleimani and the Iranian military establishment right away, they will undoubtedly reap some short-term benefit. Iran has billions in frozen assets that, once thawed, the regime could pour into military adventures and terrorist plots.
“We are of course aware and concerned that, despite the massive domestic spending needs facing Iran, some of the resulting sanctions relief could be used by Iran to fund destabilizing actions,” a State Department official recently told The Daily Beast.
Such is the price of a deal. Whether the United States comes to regret paying it, we’ll find out. Maybe in eight years.
—with additional reporting by Alexa Corse and Michael Weiss
CORRECTION 7:48 PM: An earlier version of this story attributed Sen. McCain's quotes to Sen. Cornyn, and vice versa. We regret the error.