The head of the al-Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qassem Soleimani, is reportedly in Russia for a secret military meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The Iranian major general is subject to UN sanctions that restrict his international travel, but according to Fox News, “multiple intelligence sources” report that he took a private jet on Thursday morning from Tehran to Moscow. The report speculates that the use of a private plane was most likely intended to hide his movements.
Reuters also quoted “three sources with knowledge of his trip” who confirmed that Soleimani had gone to Moscow. Fox said that Soleimani was making a 48-hour visit to the Russian capital.
According to Reuters, a “Moscow-based Western diplomat” said that he believed Soleimani would meet with Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“General Soleimani traveled to Moscow last night to discuss issues including the delivery of S-300s and further military cooperation,” the news agency quoted a senior Iranian security official as saying.
The Russian-made S-300 is one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world, offering long-range protection against both airplanes and missiles. Israel has long sought to block the sale to Iran of the systems, which analysts say could impede a potential IDF strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Other officials have expressed concern that the systems could reach Syria and Hezbollah, diluting Israel’s regional air supremacy.
The trip marks the first meeting between the two men since Russia began withdrawing its troops from Iranian ally Syria, where they had been shoring up the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad after five years of civil war. Iran has not officially acknowledged sending troops to Syria to help Assad maintain his grip on power, but says it has “advisers” on the ground assisting the regime.
A spokesman for the Kremlin denied Friday that such talks were set to take place, saying that a meeting with Soleimani was not on Putin’s schedule.
This is not the first time in recent months that reports have emerged of a Moscow meeting between Putin and Soleimani. The Kremlin in December also denied that the president met with Soleimani in Moscow.
But Iran’s semi-state Fars news agency at the time quoted unnamed sources saying Soleimani did meet Putin “and high-ranking Russian military and security officials during a three-day visit last week to pursue the issues raised during the [late November] meeting between Putin and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei [in Tehran].”
Fars said Putin discussed the “latest developments in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon” with Soleimani, and referred to him as “my friend, Qassem.”
It also said that the IRGC denied the report, but noted that, since Soleimani is under constant threat by enemies including “Israeli and American secret services,” his activities are generally conducted in secret.
Fars noted that Soleimani was reportedly instrumental in encouraging Putin to enter the Syrian civil war in support of Iran-backed Assad, having previously visited Moscow to meet Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in July.
Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah also acknowledges its forces are fighting on the ground, and the presence of Iranian, Iraqi and Afghan “volunteers” has been documented. Hezbollah has seen between 1,300 and 1,500 of its fighters killed in battles in the Syrian civil war, which means that together, with the wounded, it has lost as much as one-third of its fighting force, according to Israeli estimates.
AFP contributed to this report