Omar over at Iraq the Model translates an article from az-Zamman that claims Iranian Revolutionary Guards are supplying Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with advanced weaponry, with Lebanese Hizbollah as the intermediary.
Here’s what you should know about this: Zarqawi _hates_ the Shi’a community, with the fiery passion of the Sun’s core. When I was with TIME, we monitored al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) pronouncements through the Web, market DVDs and audio tapes. If the stack of Zarqawi fulminations against the Americans and Jews were a foot high, for example, his tirades and sermons against the Shi’a were 10 times that. He hates ’em, which is pretty much in tune with hard-core Wahhabi doctrine.
On the other hand, he never said a word against Iran. Instead, it’s the Ba’athists who see the Persians as the bogeyman to the east. Thanks to an 8-year war with Iran, the Ba’athists are fighting an insurgency against the Iraqi government, which they consider an Iranian plot. Zarqawi’s aims are much bigger than that, and focus more on the American presence.
Now, one of my old sources — who I hear has since been picked up by the Iraqi Interior ministry, the poor guy — told me once that Iran _was_ supplying Sunni insurgents in Iraq in a bid to keep the Americans bogged down to the tune of $100 million to $200 million a year. The Iranians were acting through what the CIA would call “cut-out” groups and the Sunni insurgents often didn’t know who their ultimate bankrollers were. My source was neither insurgent, nor American, nor tied to the Shi’ite parties. He moved between all the parties because of his apparent neutrality and his information was always top-notch. He told me about the shaped charges of IEDs months before they started becoming mainstream knowledge.
Back to Zarqawi. Thanks to Zarqawi’s virulent anti-Shi’ism, it is highly unlikely that he would deal with Lebanese Hizbollah, or that Hizbollah would want to deal with him anyway, unless they’re complete lapdogs to Tehran. I don’t believe they are, despite such accusations from right-wingers in Washington and
Tel Aviv Israel.
So what are we are to make of all this?
# Probably, the story is fundamentally true, in that Iran is sending advanced weaponry, including Strela-7 missiles and lots of Kalashnikovs, to Sunni insurgents. Some of these weapons will inevitably find their way to Zarqawi’s boys. Iran is also lending support to the Shi’ite militias such as the Badr Organization and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. A certain amount of chaos next door benefits Tehran.
# Thanks to a network of middlemen, it is unlikely the Sunnis fighters know the ultimate source of the weapons, and if they do, they possibly don’t care. The Ba’athists, mainly, are fighting alongside Zarqawi now because their enemies are more or less the same, but Ba’athist commanders know that should they dislodge the Shi’ites from power — a highly unlikely event, in my opinion — Zarqawi will turn his guns on them. They (mostly) cooperate with AQI anyway, because he’s got the money.
# Iran is willing to fund guys to blow up Shi’ites if their larger aims — keeping America off-balance and bogged down, and cementing their hold on Iraq’s government — are met.
No. 3 is a controversial claim, I know, and some people (*cough, cough* Juan Cole) refuse to entertain the idea that Iran would sacrifice Iraqi Shi’ites for their plans.
That kind of thinking works well in logical, algebraic formulations of the issue, but it doesn’t work well with the hard, geopolitical facts on the ground in Iran and Iraq. Iran was _quite_ willing to send 15-year-old Shi’ites to their deaths on the front-line with Iraq in that 1980-88 war because they’d be martyrs, which has a long tradition in Shi’ism. Plus, they’re dealing with Iraqi _Arab_ Shi’ites. A lot of Iraqi Shi’ites died so that Iran wouldn’t break out of the Fao during the Iran-Iraq War, and it’s unlikely Tehran has forgotten that. Iraqi Shi’ites may share a faith, but they don’t always see eye to eye.
So, the mullahs in Tehran could regard the Shi’ite losses in Iraq as a) regrettable but acceptable losses and b) a convenient reason to expand their influence next door, in much the same way that Turkey regards violence against Turkomans as a reason to keep their fingers in Kurdish affairs. (“We must protect our Shi’ite brothers!”)
Hard-nosed power politics makes for strange bedfellows indeed.