Iranian general defies sanctions once again, travels back to Moscow

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani traveled to Moscow once again to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high ranking officials in defiance of a United Nations  ban forbidding him from international travel, multiple intelligence sources tell Fox News.

This marked Soleimani’s second trip to Moscow since July, days after a landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers was reached on July 14. Fox News learned Soleimani has departed Moscow, opting to return to Tehran after one day instead of a planned two-day trip.

This marks the first face-to-face meeting between Soleimani and Putin since the Russian president ordered his military to begin a partial withdrawal of forces from Syria last month. Soleimani arrived in Moscow from Tehran early Thursday morning via private jet, a charter operated by Mahan Air, an Iranian airline.

This week, Russia sent its first component of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Tehran, a delivery planned during Soleimani’s last trip to Moscow.

Using a private jet to travel to Moscow indicates that Soleimani wants to avoid public disclosure of his clandestine travels.  Sources say that he has canceled a number of trips to Moscow recently, fearing that he would be exposed.

Soleimani was first designated a terrorist and sanctioned by the United States in 2005 for his role as a supporter of terrorism. He is responsible for coordinating Shia-militias that killed hundreds of American troops in Iraq during the second Iraq war.

In October 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department tied Soleimani to the failed Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Soleimani’s Quds Force is part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, charged with supporting proxy forces in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, in addition to Syria. At one point, Iran sent a few thousand troops to Syria to defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Quds Force reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Last weekend, Khamenei tweeted a photo of a gathering of his military commanders. A close-up photo of Soleimani was among the photos sent out.

In early March, Russia pulled out more than a dozen fighter jets from Syria, but dozens more remain.  Moscow has recently sent its most advanced helicopter gunships to Syria to help Syrian forces battle ISIS in the historic city of Palmyra, an indication that Russia does not plan a complete withdrawal any time soon.

Sources tell Fox News Iran’s leadership was surprised by Putin’s decision to withdraw some of his forces and wants to coordinate next steps in Syria.

Since his last visit to Moscow in July, Soleimani has been seen in photos on social media leading Iranian-backed forces in Syria, including Hezbollah, not far from where the Russian military has established an air base in Latakia along the Mediterranean coast.

Months after Soleimani’s visit to Moscow, Russia began its deployment of military aircraft and troops to Syria to shore up Assad.

In Moscow in July, Soleimani is believed to have helped Russia draw up plans for its military intervention. Sources told Fox News, first to report Soleimani’s trip in July, that Iran wanted Syria to serve as a buffer between ISIS and Hezbollah, a Shia-Islamist group based in Lebanon.

In July, five days after Soleimani’s first visit to Moscow, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked if the Iranian general would ever receive sanctions relief as part of a deal with Iran.

“Under the United States’s initiative, Qassem Soleimani will never be relieved of any sanctions,” Kerry testified on Capitol Hill.