BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- The assassination of an Iranian general in Syria and the discovery of the mysterious death in an Israeli prison of an Australian linked to Israel's intelligence have, once again, exposed the murky and complex shadow war being fought in the Middle East.
These two events, separated by more than two years, have also turned up intriguing links with Israel's drive to prevent its enemies acquiring missiles and other advanced weapons that could bring about the long-feared war between the Jewish state and its Muslim adversaries.
The Iranian, Brig. Gen. Hassan Shateri, aka Hessam Khoshnevis, was reported killed by rebel forces in war-torn Syria last week. That's the version given by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Shateri was a top commander in the corps' elite Al-Quds Force, which conducts covert operations outside Iran.
Shateri, 58, headed the Al-Quds operation in Lebanon, and possibly in Syria as well, where Al-Quds teams are known to be aiding the beleaguered regime of President Bashar Assad, Iran's key Arab ally.
By various accounts, Shateri's primary mission was to oversee the rearmament of Hezbollah after its 2006 war with Israel. That included building up Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles -- surface-to-surface, anti-aircraft and anti-ship -- to unprecedented proportions.
The Jerusalem Post says Hezbollah has 65,000 rockets and missiles, including hundreds capable of reaching anywhere in Israel.
These are Iran's first line of defense, and possibly offense as well, against Israel.
Shateri's mission, camouflaged behind his official assignment of overseeing reconstruction of Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon, badly battered in 2006, made him a marked man.
Shateri operated out of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, long considered a base for Iranian intelligence and al-Quds Force, using his Khoshnevis identity.
The Free Syrian Army, one of the main rebel forces in Syria, claims that Shateri wasn't killed, as reported, on the Damascus-Beirut highway near the border town of Zabadani, where the Guards and Hezbollah have a base and arms depot.
It said he was actually slain in a Jan. 30 airstrike near Zabadani, supposedly against a convoy moving Iranian-supplied missiles into Lebanon for Hezbollah.
Israel is widely blamed for the air raid, in which several Iranians were reported killed.
The Israelis have said nothing but it's long been suspected they've been conducting airstrikes as far afield as southern Sudan since 2008 to disrupt Iran's clandestine arms shipments to Hezbollah and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Israel's intelligence service has also been involved. It was widely seen as responsible for the assassination of Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's iconic military chief and a key figure in the Iranian arms operation, in Damascus Feb. 12, 2008.
Lebanese analyst Tony Badran observed that once the Iranian plan to arm Hezbollah and the Palestinians with weapons that eroded Israel's strategic power "became apparent to Israeli intelligence, it began targeting the Iranian network of strategic weapons transfers, assembly and distribution centers and the top people running the operation."
One of those was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior figure in Hamas, the Palestinian faction that rules Gaza, who headed its arms procurement. He was assassinated Jan. 19, 2010, in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, apparently by a hit team from the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service.
The Israeli team, 26 men and women in all, used a variety of passports, German, British and Australian. All made a clean getaway. Israel has never admitted responsibility for Mabhouh's death.
There's been considerable speculation the Australian who apparently hanged himself Dec. 15, 2010, in an Israeli prison cell where he'd been held in solitary confinement for two years on supposedly grave but unspecified security charges, may have been involved in the Mabhouh assassination.
The Australian, Ben Zygier, had worked for the Mossad for several years before he was arrested in February 2010 -- a month after the Mabhouh killing -- and locked away in a special wing of Ramle prison near Tel Aviv.
At that time, he was under investigation by Australia's intelligence service on suspicion of passport fraud. There are reports he was about to spill Israeli secrets to the Australians, or the news media.
The Israelis have said almost nothing about his death, which was reported by an Australian TV channel last week. It's still not clear how he could have hanged himself with his own belt in a cell under constant electronic surveillance.