In the Iran Deal, Sharing Names Is a Dangerous Game

Two men with similar names were relieved of sanctions when the Iran deal came to fruition Tuesday. That led for some confusion on social media.


Two individuals sharing nearly the same name — but different transliterations from Farsi to English — led some to claim that the nuclear deal arrived at Tuesday in Vienna included quickly lifting sanctions on a notorious Iranian spymaster.

Not long after the Iranian nuclear deal was made public Tuesday, Twitter began to flood with rumors that Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards responsible primarily for operations outside of Iran, had received groundbreaking sanctions relief as part of the historic deal.

Suleimani has multiple sanctions listed against him by the U.S. Treasury Department, including one for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The U.N. Security Council put Suleimani on a list of sanctioned officials in 2007.

But a spokesperson for the Treasury Department and an official at the State Department confirmed to Foreign Policy Tuesday that although Suleimani will eventually receive sanctions relief from the United Nations, Tuesday’s deal will in no way alter his status on U.S. sanctions lists. And his relief from the U.N. sanctions will not go into effect for another eight years, the longest amount of time for sanctions to possibly last under the new terms reached Tuesday.

His eventual removal from the U.N. sanctions list, according to a State Department official who spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity, was nonnegotiable. Iran would only come to the negotiating table if every Security Council resolution related to Iran, including any designated names or companies included on the sanctions lists, were lifted.

Part of the deal struck Tuesday is that those U.N. sanctions will be lifted in two phases. The first will be implemented as soon as Iran takes the first necessary steps to prove it is complying with the standards laid out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The second will be implemented in eight years, at the very last moment the U.N. will still be authorized to lift sanctions.

Strangely enough, part of the confusion over what Suleimani’s sanctions relief really means, and during which phase his name will be removed from sanctions lists, is due to the transliterated spelling of his name.

The document spelling out Tuesday’s deal included extensive lists of people and businesses who will be relieved from various sanctions lists at one point or another, including one “Ghasem Soleymani” and another “Qasem Soleimani.” Fars News Agency, an Iranian news outlet, even tweeted the name “Ghasem Soleymani” as “proof” Gen. Qassem Suleimani was being relieved of sanctions held against him.

But according to both the State and Treasury Departments, Ghasem Soleymani has nothing to do with the notorious spymaster at all. In fact, he was included on a sanctions list by the U.N. for his role as director of uranium mining operations at the Saghand Uranium Mine in Iran, not for any involvement in the Revolutionary Guards. The 2008 U.N. Security Council resolution named him “as a person linked to Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or development of nuclear weapon delivery systems,” the Treasury spokesperson, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, told FP. He will be relieved from the sanctions list during the first phase.

The other name, however, is indeed the well-known leader of the Quds Force, who will be relieved of U.N. sanctions in eight years, but will remain on U.S. sanctions lists.

“The U.S. sanctions in place have a significant impact because of their secondary nature,” the Treasury spokesperson said. “This means that individuals, companies, and banks around the world would be exposing themselves to sanctions if they did business with IRGC — even if delisted at U.N. — as the U.S. will not be delisting the IRGC.”

Republican lawmakers opposed to the deal were quick to voice their discontent with Suleimani’s inclusion in Tuesday’s sanction relief lists. Speaking to MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said the deal was a terrible mistake, in part because of people like Suleimani who are included in sanctions relief.

“Today, we are giving sanctions relief to organizations like the Revolutionary Guard Corps and men like Qassem Suleimani, the general that leads that corps, who are responsible for killing American soldiers,” he said.

But the truth behind his statement depends largely on who he considers to be “we.”

The same State Department official told FP that “we the U.S. are not giving any sanctions relief to Qassem Suleimani or to any IRGC entities.”

“But separately, it is accurate that every individual … anyone who’s ever been designated under these Iran-related UNSC resolutions is going to have their name lifted eventually by the U.N,” he added.

Caroline Rabbitt, Cotton’s communications director, said that to Cotton’s office, whether it is U.S. or U.N. relief is not the most relevant question.

“Our point is that Qassem Suleimani is getting sanctions relief,” she told FP. “Regardless of whether it’s U.N. or U.S. relief or whether it’s now or in eight years, it’s happening.”