U.S. government researchers believe the Iran has maintained its tied to al Qaeda, and will seek to increase its influence over al Qaeda in light of the recent death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. These Iranian al Qaeda connections were initially formed, and subsequently strengthened, by an Iranian organization that specializes in this sort of thing. Bin Laden was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Iranian relationship. But many other al Qaeda leaders were.
Iran also has an organization that specializes in making nice to nasty outfits like al Qaeda. Most people are unaware that Iran has its own Special Forces, the secretive al Quds Force, which seeks out Iranian allies overseas. Quds belongs to the IRGC (the Iranian Republican Guard Corps.) Also known as the Pasdaran, the IRGC is a paramilitary force of about 100,000 full timers that insures that any anti-government activity is quickly eliminated. To assist the Pasdaran, there is a part-time, volunteer force, several hundred thousand Basej, which can provide additional manpower when street muscle is required. The Basej are usually young, Islamic conservative men, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. If opponents to the government stage a large demonstration, it will often be broken up by Basej, in civilian clothes, using fists and clubs.
The Quds Force, however, is a full time operation, of men trained to spread the Islamic revolution outside Iran. The Quds force has a major problem in that they are spreading a Shia Islamic revolution, while only 15 percent of Moslems are Shia. Most of the rest are Sunni, and many of those consider Shia heretics. In several countries, there is constant violence between Shia and Sunni conservatives. This has been going on long before the clerics took control of Iran in 1979 (al Qaeda showed up in the 1990s).
The core operatives of the Quds force comprises only a few thousand people. But many of them are highly educated, most speak foreign languages, and all are Islamic radicals. They are on a mission from God to convert the world to Shia Islam, and the rule by Shia clergy. The Quds Force has been around since the 1980s, and their biggest success has been in Lebanon, where they helped local Shia (who comprise about a third of the population) form the Hezbollah organization.
The Quds Force has eight departments, each assigned to a different part of the world. While the one that works in the Palestine/Lebanon/Jordan area have been the most successful, the other departments have been hard at it for two decades.
The Western Directorate established a recruiting and fund raising network in Western nations. Many recruits are brought back to Iran for training, while Shia migrants are encouraged to donate money, and services, to Quds Force operations. Because many of these operations are considered terrorist operations, Quds Force is banned in many Western nations
The Iraq Department long maintained an army of anti-Saddam fighters in exile (in Iran) as well as running an intelligence operation inside Iraq. After the coalition toppled Saddam in 2003, Quds Force moved people, money and weapons into Iraq, to form pro-Iranian political forces and militias.
The South Asia Department (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) was active in aiding Afghan Shia who were being persecuted by the Taliban (a Sunni operation) and al Qaeda (a very Sunni operation). Quds has also been operating in Pakistan, where Sunni terrorists have been attacking Shia for decades.
The Turkey Department has been active encouraging Shia Kurds to commit terrorist acts.
The North Africa Department has an operation in Sudan, that functions in the open, despite the Sunni conservatives who run the country. This department was recently caught providing weapons to the Sunni Islamic Courts militia in Somalia.
The Arabian Department supports terrorist groups that exist in all the Persian Gulf Arab countries. The Arab Sunni governments in these nations do not appreciate Iran's support for this sort of thing.
The Central Asian Department supports Shia and Sunni terrorists in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. So does al Qaeda, but the Quds operation has been more discreet.
Back in Iran, Quds is believed to provide safe houses for al Qaeda leaders, even though al Qaeda has taken part in many atrocities against Shia outside Iran. However, Quds appears to believe that the "enemy of my enemy is my friend." Actually, there is a major dispute in the Iranian government over the al Qaeda issue. But the Iranian leadership is more a federation than a dictatorship, so Quds can keep being nice to al Qaeda as long as not too many factions get mad at Quds. But the death of bin Laden presents a unique opportunity for al Quds to expand its terror network, and help keep these Sunni radicals from killing Shia.
The Iranian leadership, despite their radical sounding pronouncements, have actually been quite cautious. This is in line with ancient Iranian custom. Most of the Hezbollah violence in Lebanon was at the behest of Lebanese. The same pattern has occurred elsewhere. The Quds guys usually counsel restraint, although in Iraq there has been more enthusiasm for violence. Iraq is a special case, as several hundred thousand Iranians died fighting Saddam in the 1980s, and Iranians have not forgotten.