America’s most dangerous enemy was welcomed in Russia despite international travel bans, where he met with senior officials. Qassem Suleimani is reported to have met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Iranian general is subject to United Nations Security Council travel bans arising from his support for terrorism. Russia, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, could be expected to take a leading role in enforcing the resolutions of this group.
That Suleimani was received by Russia’s top diplomat is especially ironic given that the specific charges leading to the sanctions arose from a plot led by Suleimani to assassinate world diplomats. The United States Treasury Department tied him to a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, D.C. This proved to be linked to a wider international plot to assassinate diplomats linked to the United States, Saudi Arabia or Israel. This plot was uncovered in Azerbaijan, but it had worldwide tendrils. Had it been successful, it would have been a violation of the most basic norms of diplomatic immunity without which international diplomacy would be impossible. If the physical safety of ambassadors is not guaranteed, it is simply not possible to resolve dangerous international conflicts by coming together to reason.
In addition to the plot against diplomats, Suleimani was a major force behind the deaths of Americans during the Iraq war. Though Iran was not a declared combatant in that war, Suleimani and his Quds Force organized Shia militias and armed them with advanced explosives and rockets. General Ray Odierno testified that during the last two years of the war, “the majority” of American deaths were at the hands of surrogate groups organized by Suleimani in order to prosecute Iranian interests through an illegal shadow war.
It is not known what the Russian government wanted to discuss with the head of Quds Force. The ending of the embaroges against Iran offers other nations the opportunity to invest in Iran’s economy, but those conversations would presumably be held with other Iranian officials. Iran is poised to strengthen its air defenses with the purchase of a large number of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles, an interesting decision for a nation allegedly preparing to stand down its secret nuclear program. While this is a military matter, this too seems as if it would be the purview of another branch of the Iranian military.
Quds Force concentrates on unconventional warfare, also a Russian speciality as seen during the deployment of the so-called “green men” in Ukraine and the Spetznaz agitators just before the invasion of Crimea. It is very likely that the meeting was to map out a common strategy for pursuing their respective national interests. Iran is poised to become the power player in the region from Afghanistan to the Levant due to the collapse of Iraq’s military and its subsequent reinforcement by Iranian controlled Shia militias.
Suleimani may be coordinating more than agreed-upon divisions of territory and authority with the Russians. A common plan for the pursuit of unconventional warfare would be a wise choice for both nations. The increasing tension in the region between Sunni and Shia powers is going to be exacerbated by the pending Iran nuclear deal and consequent vast increase in weapons sales by the United States to regional Sunni powers. Because it can offer a deniable tool for pursuing national goals, unconventional warfare can be a way to advance interests without providing opponents with an actionable causus belli. Iran may wish to buy some time to obtain the benefits of the new deal, such as access to frozen assets and advanced enrichment technologies, before fighting the regional war that it must fear is brewing.
For Russia, showing that it cannot be bound by Security Council rulings it has itself signed off on may be part of the point of meeting with Suleimani. Its profile has been increasingly aggressive since the invasion of Georgia in 2007. This meeting sends the clear signal that Iran is under the protection of Russia, and that Russia cannot be controlled.