It's not only Donald Trump who's missing one of the biggest stories in the Middle East

In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt last week, Donald Trump could not answer a question that many foreign-policy observers considered fairly basic:

“Are you familiar with General Soleimani?”

As Hewitt put it, General Soleimani “is to terrorism sort of what Trump is to real estate.” And he’s someone that Trump — and other high-ranking officials who have been apparently unaware of him — should get to know.

Qassem Soleimani, a major general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), commands the powerful Quds force — a division of the IRGC which conducts special operations outside Iran. 

Soleimani’s influence has extended well across the Middle East for decades — from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Bahrain. His close ally is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who commands the Shia militias currently fighting ISIS in Iraq with whom Soleimani has posed for photos.

In Iraq, militias loyal to Tehran are sharing bases with the US military and benefiting from US aerial operations, Bloomberg reported in June. Meanwhile, Iran — under Soleimani’s purview — is using those militias to expand its influence in Iraq and fight alongside the Bashar al-Assad regime in neighbouring Syria. 

In June, Soleimani travelled to Syria to “organise the entry of Iranian officials to supervise and aid” Iranian proxy forces in coastal Syria, according to Now Lebanon.

“Qassem Soleimani is the one who has been exporting malign activities throughout the Middle East for some time now,” US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno
told Fox News. “He’s absolutely responsible for killing many Americans [in Iraq]. In fact, I would say the last two years I was there the majority of our casualties came from his surrogates, not Sunni or Al Qaeda.” 

Michael Pregent, a senior Middle East Analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was more succinct. And he said it’s not just Trump who’s been missing Soleimani’s rise.

“He is a uniformed Osama bin Laden,” Pregent told Business Insider. “And even some senators I’ve spoken to, who are due to vote for the Iran deal, don’t know who he is.”

Pregent said he met with three Democratic senators individually last Thursday, who he says all were unfamiliar with Soleimani. One of those senators has since backed the deal, while two have come out against it, he said. Pregent also said one of the Democratic senators is involved in the development of legislation to beef up sanctions on Soleimani and the Quds force.

The US imposed sanctions on Soleimani in 2011, after officials uncovered a plot he was allegedly involved in to kill a Saudi official in Washington. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), however, Soleimani (and, eventually, the entire Quds force) will receive full sanctions relief after eight years  — not by the US, but by the UN and Europe.

Secretary of State John Kerry did not seem aware, at least initially, that Soleimani would receive sanctions relief under the deal, erroneously stating at a press conference in July that it is a “different Soleimani” that is listed.

Later, he ensured the press that Soleimani would not be de-listed by the US.

But firms linked to the IRGC, of which Soleimani’s Quds force is an entity, are slated for sanctions relief under the JCPOA.

“The Achilles’ heel of this deal is that individuals were selectively taken off sanctions lists,” Pregent said. “The deal is so weak that if any sanctions on these individuals are doubled or increased, Iran will consider it a breach of the terms.”

In August, Soleimani reportedly violated a travel ban and flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. A State Department official told The Daily Beast in July that it was “aware and concerned” that some of the sanctions relief could be used by Iran to fund “destabilizing actions.”

But Pregent said post-deal concern isn’t enough.

“If the intelligence community had been given the names of those being de-listed from sanctions early on, we would have been able to vet them,” Pregent said. “As it is now, the deal rewards the individuals who were responsible for killing Americans.”

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