The recent death of Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) senior officer Hassan Shateri, alias Hessam Khoshnevis, has cast the spotlight on the direct role the IRGC plays in overseeing Hezbollah’s affairs. While Shateri operated in Lebanon under civilian cover, the revelation of his real identity was met with a general sense of surprise. But the presence in Lebanon of IRGC commanders of such stature is hardly novel. IRGC involvement is pervasive in multiple areas of Hezbollah operations, and has been so since the group’s inception. The increased visibility of the IRGC’s hand, however, should refocus the discussion on the nature and mission of Hezbollah, and serve as a corrective to media and academic characterizations of the group.
Even though the IRGC’s presence in Lebanon became more visible since 2006, and even more so following the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah, it has nonetheless been longstanding. In fact, Shateri’s assassination brings us back full circle to 1981, when Mohammad Saleh Hosseini, another senior IRGC commander based in Lebanon with the cover of a “political adviser,” was ambushed and gunned down in Beirut by unknown assailants (possibly Iraqi intelligence) while driving his car. Quds Force operatives have long used such diplomatic cover in their overseas operations.
One reason many were surprised to learn of Shateri’s true identity can be attributed to years of willful self-deluding coverage of Hezbollah in academe and the media. The mantra of Hezbollah as a nationalist Lebanese resistance group became so entrenched that it led many analysts to minimize or deny the party’s subservience to Iran. Hezbollah experts dismissed as “anachronistic” the argument that the Party of God was an extension of Iranian regime structures, such as the IRGC. These prevailing views regarding Hezbollah as an autonomous “sub-state actor” had blinded many to a fact made clear in the 2006 war: Hezbollah is an extension of a state apparatus, and that state is Iran.
The 2006 war spurred renewed focus on the IRGC’s intimate involvement in Hezbollah’s command and control. At the time, an unnamed Bush administration official told the New York Times that "intelligence reports have concluded that a small number of Iranians are currently operating in Lebanon.” Suspicions intensified after an Iranian radar-guided anti-ship cruise missile struck an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast on July 14, 2006. The Israeli military believed that IRGC-QF personnel, who had trained Hezbollah cadres on these advanced missile systems, actually handled the attack themselves.
Similarly, there were reports that an Israeli incursion in the Beqaa on August 1, 2006 resulted in the killing of several IRGC advisers. A report in al-Sharq al-Awsat that year, citing an Iranian military source, stated that 130 IRGC and QF officers were on the ground assisting Hezbollah. In fact, it was IRGC field officers on the ground in southern Lebanon, following the Israeli withdrawal of 2000, who supervised the build-up of Hezbollah’s infrastructure between 2000 and 2006, and oversaw the introduction of strategic weapons into Hezbollah’s arsenal.
Shateri himself was such a military engineer. Although we can’t say for sure whether or not he had played a role before 2006, his relocation to Lebanon is said to have taken place following the July ’06 war, when Hezbollah’s infrastructure was in ruins. Shateri’s task was to revamp Hezbollah’s military infrastructure, tunnels and rocket silos, and to rehabilitate its communications network.
However, despite his critical importance, Shateri was not the Quds Force commander in Lebanon. That person would be Hassan Mahdavi, a.k.a. Mohammad Reza Zahedi. In recent years, tidbits in the media revealed what role Mahdavi has played. While Shateri’s task was apparently to handle critical logistical issues, Mahdavi seems to have direct influence over Hezbollah’s command as well as over its finances.
According to rumors in the regional media in 2009, Mahdavi had a decisive say in the selection of Imad Mughniyah’s successor. In addition, following the 2009 parliamentary elections, the Kuwaiti paper as-Siyassa claimed that Mahdavi ordered a wide inquiry into the party’s finances. As-Siyassa’s report appeared a couple of months before the Salah Izzeddine pyramid scheme scandal that cost several Hezbollah officials – and countless Lebanese Shiites who invested with the financier – large sums of money. A 2011 Der Spiegel report even mentioned Mahdavi as having advised Hezbollah on another revenue source: the drug trade.
By 2010, the Israelis had identified Mahdavi as the Quds Force commander in Lebanon. Some Israeli journalists speculated that the deepened IRGC involvement was the result of the void left by Mughniyah. That same year, the US Treasury Department designated Mahdavi, under the name Mohammad Reza Zahedi, describing him as the “commander of the IRGC-QF in Lebanon.” The Treasury Department designation also included none other than Hessam Khoshnevis, i.e. Shateri. Only it appears that at the time, Washington did not disclose his true identity as a senior Quds Force official.
In the fact sheet explaining its designation of Shateri (Khoshnevis) for his role as the director of the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon, the Treasury clarified that the designation exposed “Iran’s use of its state apparatus and State-run social service organizations to support terrorism under the guise of providing reconstruction and economic development assistance or social services.”
Ironically, the provision of social services to Lebanese Shiites is precisely why many analysts have said we shouldn’t regard Hezbollah as an Iranian asset. However, the prominent and all-pervasive roles that the IRGC-QF continues to play in running Hezbollah operations only highlight how it has a direct say not just in Hezbollah’s military affairs, but also in its command structure as well as its finances. This should dispel any notion that Hezbollah is an autonomous organization. Rather, the Party of God itself is but an Iranian state-run organization.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.