Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran. (AP) Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher January 16, 2020

Fact-checking Trump's claim that Obama designated Iran's Soleimani a terrorist but did nothing

Campaigning for re-election in Milwaukee, host city for the upcoming Democratic National Convention, President Donald Trump contrasted himself with President Barack Obama on fighting terrorism.

The focus: Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, who was considered to be one of the most powerful and important officials in Iran. He was killed Jan. 3 in Iraq in a drone strike authorized by Trump.

After detailing terrorist acts attributed to "this son of a bitch," Trump said Soleimani "wasn’t supposed to be there." 

Soleimani "was a designated terrorist by President Obama, who didn't do anything about it," Trump charged.

Trump also made the claim a week earlier to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Is it true?

Like President George W. Bush before him, Obama did not capture or kill Soleimani after a designation was placed him. 

Thousands of such official sanctionings related to terrorism are made without such actions being taken.

And a series of designations, escalated under Obama, made it more difficult for Soleimani to travel and conduct financial transactions.

Obama didn’t take action against Soleimani beyond that.

Soleimani first designated by Bush

There are different levels of designations the U.S. government makes on individuals and groups related to terrorism.

Soleimani was originally designated, as the government refers to it, by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2007 — under Bush — based on being commander of the Quds Force. At the same time, the Treasury designated the Quds Force for "providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations."

In 2007, U.S. special operations forces planned a mission to capture Soleimani, but senior U.S. leaders declined to approve it, retired Army Col. Frank Sobchak told PolitiFact. Sobchak was one of the lead editors of the Army's report on the Iraq War.

"Individuals that we talked to in senior positions of the U.S. government told us that with support for the war at an all time low in 2007, the Bush administration recognized the importance of Soleimani to the war, but was not willing to risk the political capital and repercussions that could occur from expanding the war to that level," he said.

So, the designation led to actions being weighed by Bush, but not taken.

Designations under Obama

The Obama administration designated Soleimani twice.

The U.S. Treasury Department designated him in May 2011 for his role as the commander of the Quds Force, "the primary conduit for Iran's support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate." The allegations had to do with Syrian protesters being killed by Syrian security forces.

The more serious move came in October 2011, when Treasury designated Soleimani again, saying he oversaw the Quds Force officers who plotted an attempt to assassinate Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The killing of the ambassador was to have taken place in a bombing at Cafe Milano in Washington, D.C., according to federal prosecutors.

That is the designation Trump’s campaign cited to us when we asked for information to support Trump’s claim.

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That Treasury action made Soleimani a "specially designated global terrorist," said Jacob Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. 

There are more than 4,100 people on various Treasury sanctions lists, but only about 1,600 specially designated global terrorists, he said.

Americans are prohibited from engaging in transactions with individuals who are designated, and any assets they may hold in the United States are frozen.

"But just because the U.S. designates a group as a terrorist organization does not mean there is an official policy to assassinate the organization's leaders or actively target the group's members," said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a global security think tank.

In short, the designations made it more difficult for Soleimani to maneuver in terms of travel and conducting financial transactions, although he clearly was able to work around those restrictions, Shapiro said.

When announcing his death, the Pentagon blamed Soleimani for orchestrating a series of attacks on allied bases in Iraq in recent months, most recently a rocket strike that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded four other service members.

"I am unaware of any capture or kill mission that was publicly revealed against Soleimani by the Obama administration,"  Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told us. 

Similarly, after Soleimani’s death, Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense from 2012 to 2015, told the Daily Beast: "To my knowledge, there was never a decision of ‘We’ve gotta go find this guy and get him.’" That comment was echoed by retired Gen. David Petraeus, the CIA director under Obama, on CBS’ "Face the Nation."

It’s also worth noting that because of a multination deal pushed by Obama with Iran to curb Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon, Soleimani would eventually be removed from a United Nations sanctions list. 

The upshot

Clearly, Obama didn’t go as far as Trump did in taking action against Soleimani.

Under Obama, "a policy choice was made to reduce U.S. military presence in the Middle East and shift capabilities to the Pacific," said Rick Brennan, a career Army officer and political scientist at the RAND Corp. "At the same time, the administration was focused on gaining Iranian agreement to the Iran nuclear deal and elected not to press Iran on its regional terrorist activities conducted by the (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force) and General Soleimani, even though the IRGC-QF was becoming more and more active in places such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.  

"So, President Trump was correct in stating that the Obama administration did nothing that had a detrimental impact on General Soleimani or the IRGC-QF."

But it goes too far to say that Obama didn’t do anything, given that the designations themselves carried some force — for example, restricting Soleimani’s ability to travel and finance his operations.

"The sanctions reflect the fact that the Obama administration took a number of steps — some seen many others unseen — to constrain Soleimani’s activities," said Ned Price, who served as special assistant to Obama for national security affairs and was referred to us by an Obama spokesman.

From 2011 on, Price argued, American service members and diplomats in Iraq were not attacked by Iranian proxies and militias as they have been since May 2018, when Trump implemented his maximum pressure strategy on Iran.

In short, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute: 

"Designating entities and individuals in Iran are all meant to press Iran to change its ways, policies. So, they weren’t necessarily meant to be an end in itself."

Our ruling

Trump said Soleimani "was a designated terrorist by President Obama, who didn't do anything about it."

The Obama administration did designate Soleimani as a terrorist. The designation did not mean he was being targeted to be killed, as Trump ultimately targeted him. 

Obama’s designation did put some restrictions on Soleimani’s ability to travel and conduct financial transactions and, according to experts, was part of a U.S. effort to pressure Iran to change its ways on terrorism. But the terrorist attacks that the United States blamed on Soleimani continued, and Obama did not take action against Soleimani beyond the designations.

For a statement that is accurate but needs clarification, our rating is Mostly True.

Our Sources

C-SPAN, Donald Trump campaign speech, Jan. 14, 2020

Email, Trump campaign spokesman Zach Parkinson, Jan. 15, 2020

PolitiFact, "Mike Pence lacks evidence in claiming Soleimani helped 9/11 terrorists," Jan. 7, 2020

Email, Benjamin Friedman, policy director of Defense Priorities think tank and adjunct professor at George Washington University School of International Affairs, Jan. 14, 2020

Interview, Jacob Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, Jan. 15, 2020

U.S. Treasury Department, designations, Oct. 11 2011

U.S. Treasury Department, designations, May 18, 2011

U.S. Treasury Department, designations, Oct. 25, 2007

U.S. Code, "8 USC 1189: Designation of foreign terrorist organizations," Jan. 14, 2020

Congressional Research Service, "U.S. Killing of Qasem Soleimani: Frequently Asked Questions," Jan. 13, 2020

Email, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, Jan. 15, 2020

Email, Mehdi Khalaji, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,  Jan. 15, 2020

Email, Ned Price, director of policy and communications at National Security Action and a lecturer at George Washington University, Jan. 15, 2020

Email, Rick Brennan, career Army officer and political scientist at the RAND Corp., Jan. 14, 2020

Email, Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, Jan. 15, 2020

Email, Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Jan. 15, 2020

Email, Amy Pate, executive and research director at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, Jan. 15, 2020

Business Insider, "Iran's strategic mastermind got a huge boost from the nuclear deal," July 15, 2015

CBS, "Face the Nation" transcript, Jan. 5, 2020

Email, Iran expert Hooshang Amirahmadi, planning and public policy professor at Rutgers University, Jan. 16, 2020

Daily Beast, "Why Obama, Bush, and Bibi All Passed on Killing Soleimani," Jan. 3, 2020


Interview, Alex Vatanka, senior fellow, Middle East Institute, Jan. 15, 2020

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Fact-checking Trump's claim that Obama designated Iran's Soleimani a terrorist but did nothing

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