Merchant of Death
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Iran's Grander Ambitions
It appears that Iranian special Quds Forces are directly aiding Sunni _jihadist_ forces in Iraq, along with the Shi'ite militias, as reported here. But it is highly-calibrated assistance, not to the old regime's Baathist groups, but to individuals directly tied to al Qaeda.

This is in keeping with Iran's long-term strategic interest in seeing the U.S. forces come under the maximum strain, while maintaining leverage with a group that will likely be active in Iraq for years to come. It is not a new strategy for Iran. They are still harboring senior al Qaeda operatives for several years, and allowed safe passage to at least one wife and several children of Osama bin Laden as they fled Afghanistan in 2001.

The Quds Force, in particular, has protected al Qaeda operatives, as well as working extensively with Hezbollah and, at times Hamas (another Sunni group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood). Their presence in Iraq cannot be a surprise, and the documents taken from the captured Iranian officials outlining the overall strategy appears to be genuine.

While the Shi'ite-Sunni divide is real and deep, the importance of it is a source of constant debate in the Islamist community. Some, like Zarqawi, thought that going after the Shi'ia, as apostates and heretics, was at least as important as going after either the corrupt Sunni regimes or the "far enemies" of the United States and Israel.

Bin Laden and Zawahiri, in their missives to Zarqawi, clearly disagreed with the strategy of attacking Shi'ites first, arguing that the hatred engendered in the local population would make it more difficult for _jihadists_ to operate.

Perhaps that view is now prevailing within the al Qaeda in Iraq group. The willingness to work with Iran comes with a serious risk, so the rewards must be equal to the risk. One risk is the wrath of the Saudi funders, who must already be alarmed by the growing influence of Iran, and by extension Hezbollah, in many places.

One of the most noticeable is in sub-Saharan Africa (northern Nigeria, Zimbabwe etc), but Iran is also making significant investments in Latin America (courting Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to increase its leverage in the great oil contests) and investing in mosques, teachings and Spanish-language religious literature.

The Saudis, while attempting to keep up in Africa have no natural base in Latin America. Iranian leaders seem to sense that the time has come for them to expand their influence far beyond what they have tried in the past.

The Iraqi adventure is a dicey proposition, but one that will likely ultimately lead to greatly expanded influence in Iraq in the post U.S. era. The Latin American and African expansions will guarantee supplies of raw materials and some markets for their goods. All in all, a grand scheme with a fair chance of success.
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