February 28, 2013
The Assassination of Iranian Quds Force General Hassan Shateri in Syria
Brigadier General Hassan Shateri, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), was assassinated in Syria on February 13, 2013. It appears that he had been in Aleppo and was killed while returning through Damascus to Beirut. It seems likely that the assassin was a member of the Syrian opposition; Tehran is convinced that his killers were operating at the behest of Israel. The evidence available at this time suggests that his assassination reflects a change in Israel’s willingness to target very senior Iranian officials who are in-country providing military support to the Assad regime. Shateri’s killing is a notable escalation in regional tensions that will likely generate Iranian retaliation.
The response of Iran’s senior leaders to Shateri’s killing demonstrates both his rank and his personal importance. Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander and head of Iranian strategy in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf, personally delivered the news of Shateri’s death to his family and wept at his memorial ceremony. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei invited Shateri’s family to his home to console them. Shateri is the senior-most member of the Quds Force known to have been killed outside of Iran in the organization’s three-decade history. He had deep connections with Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s global force projection network. His death is a serious blow to the Quds Force, and his very presence in northern Syria shows the depth of Iran’s involvement in that conflict.
The details of his death matter. In the first hours after Shateri’s death, sources close to the Iranian embassies in Beirut and Damascus released information about Shateri’s destination in Syria and the manner of his death. These details enable us to identify some of the Iranian covert networks that have been hitherto concealed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and their objectives in these locales. The circumstances of Shateri’s death also shed light on Iran’s current strategy in Syria and how that strategy fits in with Iran’s broader global operations.
Where in Syria was Shateri?
Establishing Shateri’s whereabouts in Syria and confirming that he was assassinated requires careful evaluation of the information and disinformation that has emerged about his death. The reporting on the incident has been contradictory, both between and within Western, Iranian, Israeli, and Syrian opposition sources.
The earliest information from Iranian sources indicates that Shateri was killed in a targeted assassination somewhere between Damascus and Beirut after visiting Aleppo. The later Iranian narrative omitted his visit to Aleppo and asserted that he was simply killed in the Damascus countryside. Iranian messaging has converged on an official narrative stating that Shateri was shot by “supporters and mercenaries” of Israel while traveling between Damascus and Beirut after having travelled to Syria to survey reconstruction projects. Syrian opposition and an Israeli source have stated that he was killed in the January 30 Israeli airstrike on a convoy moving SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles across the Lebanese border.
An assessment of the timeline of reporting on this event, however, indicates that the IRGC has been trying to walk back and contextualize some of the details leaked early on, particularly Shateri’s presence in Aleppo.
The initial report came early February 13 from the Ahlul Bayt World News Agency (ABNA). This report stated only that Shateri was killed by “Zionist mercenaries…outside of Iran” and that Suleimani had confirmed the report “moments ago” and personally visited Shateri’s family. Since then, ABNA has been in the lead and appears to have an inside track on Shateri reporting. ABNA was the first site to post images of Shateri’s body being buried, Shateri with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei before 2007, and Shateri with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. ABNA is the reporting agency for the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly, headed by former two-time ambassador to Syria (1986-1997 and 2005-2008) Hojjat al-Eslam Hassan Akhtari. Akhtari was also involved in standing up Lebanese Hezbollah in the 1980s. He is deeply involved in Iranian efforts to support Hezbollah, and the leading role that ABNA has taken in reporting on Shateri’s death accounts in part for the emphasis on Shateri’s participation in Iranian activities with Hezbollah as opposed to the various other important missions Shateri has undertaken outside the Levant.
The next reports provided details about Shateri’s destination in Syria. A Lebanese source reported that Shateri had been in Aleppo to “research construction projects” and was killed on his way back to Lebanon. The Iranian embassy in Beirut issued a statement claiming that Shateri had been sent to Aleppo to “implement development and construction projects” and was killed on his way to Damascus airport. One source also claimed that Shateri had been traveling with two other individuals who were not killed in the attack, a fact that is significant and will be explored later.
The idea that a very senior Quds Force general had gone to a city that is likely soon to come under the control of Syria’s opposition in order to look into construction projects is nonsensical. It likely reflects a reflexive boilerplate cover-story based on Shateri’s best-known public role overseeing the “reconstruction" of southern Lebanon after the 2006 war. It does not seem to have occurred to Iranian officials in Lebanon that the fact they most needed to conceal was Shateri’s presence in Aleppo itself rather than what he might ostensibly have been doing there.
The IRGC took 24 hours to develop an official response and message discipline, giving an alternative, retrospective, official story that has been echoed ever since. IRGC Public Relations Deputy Brigadier General 2nd Class Ramazan Sharif told reporters on February 14 that Shateri had been in Syria to “implement construction headquarters projects” and “was martyred by supporters and mercenaries of the Zionist regime while traveling between Damascus and Beirut.” Sharif’s statement then became the official Iranian narrative.
Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Qazanfar Roknabadi told the Islamic Republic’s official Arabic news network al Alam on February 18 that “Hessam Khoshnevis [the alias Shateri used in Lebanon] was directly targeted by armed individuals while traveling from Damascus to Beirut and we are investigating his death…. Iran considers the Zionist regime the primary actors in the assassination of [Shateri].” He did not mention Aleppo. The Iranian regime’s message discipline had finally reached Beirut.
The Syrian opposition has yet to converge on a single narrative of how Shateri died. One unnamed “Syrian rebel commander” claimed on February 14 that his forces had killed an Iranian official near Zabadani, a Syrian city east of Damascus near the border with Lebanon, though this report was never confirmed and is typical of Syrian opposition overstatement. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, however, stated on February 14 that Shateri had, in fact, been killed in the January 30 Israeli airstrike on a convoy in Jamraya carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missile systems bound for Lebanon. A report published by Britain’s The Sunday Times on February 24 cites an anonymous Israeli security source also claiming that Shateri was killed in that airstrike. The source further asserts that Shateri had actually been the primary target, and that Israel would not launch such a high-risk attack into heavily defended Syrian airspace to strike a weapons convoy.
Israel may, indeed, prefer that the world believe that Shateri was killed in the January 30 airstrike in Jamraya. So, too, might the Syrian opposition. Iran has long claimed that the Syrian opposition is actually helping Israel achieve its objectives in the region; therefore, Iran must support the Assad regime in order to fortify the “axis of resistance” and combat the Zionist regime. Indications or even questions of Israel providing training or intelligence to Syrian rebels in a joint effort to assassinate Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets would play directly into Iran’s rhetorical strategy and undermine both Israeli and Free Syrian Army narratives.
How Shateri Died
The available evidence on Shateri’s death does not support the Israeli or Syrian opposition claim that he died in the airstrike. Images of Shateri’s body being placed in its tomb in Semnan, Iran on February 15 show no burn marks or other injuries indicative of an airstrike. On the contrary, the visible portion of Shateri’s face appears unharmed suggesting, rather, that Shateri was killed by a gunshot wound. [UPDATE: Sohrab Jafari, a "friend and colleague" of Shateri, stated on 8 MAR 2013 that he saw Shateri's gunshot wound before he was buried.] Funerals for Shateri were held in Tehran and Semnan on February 14 and 15, respectively, during which Shateri’s remains were presented but in a closed casket.
Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Roknabadi also rejected the claims that he died in an airstrike, stating, “Those responsible for Shateri’s assassination have published contradicting reports; some of these groups suggest that he was killed during the Zionist regime’s strike in Jamarya…. These reports are absolutely inaccurate; especially the report published by the Free Syrian Army claiming that Khoshnevis was killed in the Jamarya region in an Israeli airstrike. Shateri was killed in Reef, Damascus…. The Zionist regime killed Khoshnevis by using its mercenaries.” [UPDATE: Le Figaro reported 2 APR 2013 that Shateri was killed in an ambush between Damascus and Beirut.] [UPDATE 2: The New York Times reported 21 MAY 2013 that Shateri was killed when he encountered a rebel checkpoint after having been in Aleppo.]
One could argue that Tehran would prefer to deny that Shateri was traveling with a convoy of weapons bound for Lebanese Hezbollah. But the counter to this argument is actually the most compelling reason to believe that the Iranian version of events is closest to the truth; namely, the official Iranian narrative is much more problematic for Tehran than the seeded Israeli narrative. Iranian support for Hezbollah, even their coordination in Syria, is not a startling revelation. The presence of a very senior Quds Force officer near Aleppo, which is besieged by the Syrian opposition, raises several important questions about Iran’s current covert activity in Syria.
Who Was Hassan Shateri?
Hassan Shateri was born in 1955 in Semnan, Iran, and studied civil engineering before joining the IRGC after the 1979 Iranian revolution. In 1980, he was sent to Sardasht, West Azerbaijan, where he served initially as the head of IRGC logistics in the region. Shateri was subsequently promoted to head the IRGC’s Sardasht headquarters and later the Hamzeh Seyyed al-Shohada Base combat engineering unit and Saheb al Zaman engineering brigade.It was during this time that Shateri developed the ability to lead local paramilitary organizations. According to one account from a soldier who served under Shateri in Sardasht, “It was his illustrious morality that most influenced the hearts of the troops, particularly indigenous [local] troops. He would address [people] from his heart’s belief, and there were few indigenous Basij [volunteer militia] who did not know Hajj Hassan and did not have friendly relations with him in the indigenous language.” Such talent was likely of use to Shateri in his future operations.
Shateri in Iran’s Covert Global Force Projection Network
An assessment of Shateri’s post-war external activities and the network of external operators with whom he was affiliated indicates that he was far from a mere Iran-Hezbollah interlocutor as the media currently seems to suggest; rather, Shateri was a senior official within Iran’s global force projection network. At some point after the Iran-Iraq War, Shateri gave up his domestic IRGC role and began deploying abroad. Shateri was first sent to Afghanistan where he worked alongside Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. There is little information on Shateri’s activity in Afghanistan. The limited reporting currently available indicates that he was in country ostensibly to undertake reconstruction activities, and that he left shortly after Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination in 2001.
While there is little information available on Shateri’s covert activities, one link in his network provides some insight into Shateri’s relationship with IRGC-QF and Hezbollah activities. Hezbollah’s representative to the ICRL, Hassan Hijazi, is described in an interview about Shateri as one of his “constant companions” in Lebanon. Hijazi also worked for Jihad al Bina, a construction company operated by Lebanese Hezbollah, overseen by Hezbollah’s influential Shura Council, and partially funded by Iran.
Additional links between Shateri and Iran’s global force projection network emerged in the reporting on Shateri’s death and subsequent mourning ceremonies. First, Shateri clearly had a close relationship with IRGC-QF Commander Qassem Suleimani. The very earliest reports on Shateri’s death stated that Suleimani visited Shateri’s family to inform them of his death and offer his condolences. Suleimani was also photographed weeping openly at Shateri’s funeral in Tehran. Such a private visit and emotional display suggest that Suleimani had personally ordered Shateri to undertake whatever mission it was that had sent him into northern Syria and to his death.
Shateri’s links to Suleimani are, perhaps, unsurprising. Shateri’s apparently close relationship with Kazem Darabi, an Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) agent involved in the 1992 assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Berlin, Germany, is more noteworthy. German authorities in 1996 sentenced Darabi and his Lebanese coconspirator, Abbas Hossein Rhayel, to life in prison for their role in the attack; however, Darabi and Rhayel were released in 2007. Darabi returned to Tehran upon release, but later appeared in an interview with Iranian TV in Lebanon. Darabi, identified as a “friend and colleague” of Shateri, spoke to reporters about him on the day of his assassination. Darabi participated prominently in Shateri’s February 14 and 15 funerals in Tehran and Semnan, and two separate ceremonies on February 21 in Tehran. One of these ceremonies, a small event referred to as a “visit with friends of Shateri,” was also attended and addressed by former Hezbollah South Lebanon military commander and current member of the Lebanese Hezbollah Executive and Jihad councils Sheikh Nabil Qaouk.
The other Tehran ceremony attended by Darabi was also attended by Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Reza Panahian. Panahian is the deputy head of the Ammar Base, a think tank supportive of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and a representative of Khamenei to Iran’s universities. Panahian delivered a speech at Shateri’s funeral in Tehran, during which he described how he met Shateri in Lebanon in 2008 and subsequently sought Shateri out whenever he was in Lebanon. More important, however, is that Panahian referred to Shateri as “no less than Imad Mughniyeh,” the former Hezbollah external operations commander assassinated in Syria in 2008. Panahian is also seen in an undated image alongside Shateri and Kazem Darabi at a ceremony unveiling a statue of Ahmad Matousalian in Lebanon. Matousalian headed the IRGC’s Mohammad Rasoul Allah brigade in its efforts to stand up Lebanese Hezbollah in the early 1980s.
Other notable attendees at the numerous events commemorating Shateri’s death provide further evidence of Shateri’s senior standing in Iran’s global force projection network. Imad Mughniyeh’s father attended a February 19 mourning ceremony in Tehran, and was greeted warmly by former Quds Force Commander and current Minister of Defense Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, and was seated next to IRGC Commander Major General Jafari. The Representative of the Supreme Leader to the Quds Force Ali Shirazi, former IRGC-QF Ramazan Base Commander Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili also attended this event. Attendees of Shateri’s Semnan funeral include Quds Force Deputy Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, the Supreme Leader’s Representative to Southern Lebanon, Hojjat al-Eslam Yousef Tabatabaei, and the aforementioned head of the Ahul Bayt World Assembly Ayatollah Akhtari, who notably attended the service as a representative of the Supreme Leader.
The final indication of Shateri’s elite status in the Islamic Republic was the Supreme Leader’s reaction to the news. According to Khamenei’s representative to the Quds Force, Ali Shirazi, Khamenei said after hearing of Shateri’s death, “Blessed Hajj Hassan Shateri, was on a path of service to religion, the revolution, the velayat, and the Imam; in the end he drank the sweet syrup of martyrdom and he drew out the best ending for his life.” Khamenei also received the Shateri family in his home to offer his condolences.
Shateri’s Mission in Syria
The largest, most compelling question remains: what was Shateri doing in Syria? More specifically, what was Shateri doing in Aleppo? Aleppo is currently being heavily contested by Syrian rebels and cannot be said to be within the Assad regime’s control. The ground routes into and out of Aleppo are extremely unsafe. To send a very senior Quds Force officer into such territory suggests that he was sent in to undertake a sensitive mission of high importance. Speculation that Shateri had been sent into Syria to coordinate Lebanese Hezbollah forces or oversee a weapons shipment does not fully consider Shateri’s seniority. It is unlikely that Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani would have sent one of his top lieutenants to Aleppo on a mission that could have been served by a less senior operational commander, even if Suleimani did not imagine that Shateri would have been assassinated.
Another possible scenario is that Shateri had been dispatched to lead a mission related to Syria’s al Safir chemical weapons and missile facility. Al Safir is located thirty kilometers east of Aleppo and “houses a Scud missile base, missile storage, chemical weapons production, and weaponization and testing facilities.” The facility is known to have had an Iranian presence on site before the current conflict broke out. By February, the base was in danger of being overrun. Syrian rebels captured the Assad regime’s Jarrah military base in Aleppo province on February 12 and took control of most of Base 80 on February 13. Base 80 is home to the Assad regime’s 80th regiment and is tasked with securing the nearby Aleppo International Airport and Nayrab military airport. The Assad regime’s loss of these bases, combined with Israel’s bold attack on the Lebanese Hezbollah military convoy in January, may have compelled Iran to secure and/or sanitize the al Safir facility before completely losing access. Given Iran’s involvement in Syria’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs, it is reasonable that Tehran would want to retrieve or destroy sensitive materials, remove remnants of the research and development program there, and perhaps close the facility before losing access to it entirely. Shateri’s background as a technical officer, high rank, and familiarity with Lebanon and with the Assad regime would have made him an ideal candidate to undertake such a mission. 
Conclusion: A Global Asset
Western media has missed the significance of Shateri’s assassination. Reporting on his death highlights his activities in Lebanon, both because he was assigned there most recently and because of the location and manner of his death. But Shateri was not simply a supporter of and rebuilder of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Rather, Shateri was a senior, covert Quds Force operative whose assignments ranged from the Hindu Kush through Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. His involvement in the Syrian conflict is further indication of the depth of Iran’s commitment to its interests in Syria and the grand strategic importance it places upon that conflict. Shateri’s presence in Syria also raises broader questions about how Syria fits into Iran’s global force projection strategy. A forthcoming paper published by AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War will address the depth of Iranian involvement in Syria and the implications of the difficulties the Syrian regime is facing for Iranian regional and global strategy.