The unprecedented attacks by Daesh (IS/ISIS) on the Iranian Parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini in which at least 12 people were killed and 39 injured come at an incredibly sensitive time for all countries in the Middle East.
While Daesh, like Al Qaeda, is increasingly a brand name for claiming terror attacks rather than its actual coordinator, the fact that footage of this attack was published on the Al Amaq broadcaster (the in-house channel for Daesh in the Middle East) strongly suggests that these attacks, unlike others, really was the direct work of the entity which still controls parts of Syria and Iraq.
It will be interesting to see whether people change their Facebook pictures to the Iranian flag or post 'Je Suis Tehran' hashtags in solidarity with these latest victims. The sad thing is that they probably won't — people in the West have largely been programmed to see Iran as an enemy and to ignore the fact that it, as much as the West, has been near the top of the list of enemies for Daesh, Al Qaeda and their kin.
There is no space here to explore the complex history of the rift between Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Suffice it to say that, despite their often bitter historical rivalry originating in competing claims to the succession to Mohammed, most Sunni and Shi'a have historically been content to live side by side, recognising each other's claims to be legitimate expressions of Islamic faith.
What is often obscured by commentators is that much of the present violence in the Middle East is political, not religious, even though religious labels are used as a shorthand for the competing blocs (in much the same way as 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' were used during the Troubles in Northern Ireland).
The (Sunni) Saudi kings see themselves as the guardians of true Islam because of their access to Mecca and the Holy Places while Iran, a Shi'a governed, hybrid theocracy-democracy, sees itself as having combined the best of both. Both governments are 20th century phenomena: the Saudi state dates to 1932 and the present government of Iran dates only to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Both compete for influence in the region and both have a miserable record of preserving the rights of religious or political minorities: given that the attackers spoke Farsi and accented Arabic, some have suggested an attempt to spur support for Daesh among disaffected Iranian Sunnis. While the monarchy in Saudi is more or less absolute, there is limited democracy in Iran. Women in both countries face systematic discrimination: in Saudi they cannot drive and live under men's guardianship, in Iran they face segregation and restrictions on dress but can enter most professions (for example, the women's rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Shirin Ebadi was a lawyer and judge).
The attack on the Iranian Parliament comes shortly after Donald Trump's well publicised 'Glowing Orb' Middle East tour and endorsement of the Saudi view of the world, during which he explicitly condemned Iran.
"Both events suggest that Saudi Arabia and its extremist allies feel that they have the US' blessing to act much more forcefully against its enemies, real or perceived."
As even US intelligence has long noted, the Saudis have a less than hostile relationship with Daesh, support numerous other groups working violently for the Iranian government's overthrow and its Deputy Crown Prince, just last month, threatened to take the battle between the two powers into Iran itself. The attacks also coincide with the rise of a US administration much more hawkish against Iran than the previous one. Ironically, the hard-line Revolutionary Guard in Iran (which had been marginalised by Hasan Rouhani's victory in the recent presidential elections) is likely to soar in popularity now that the homeland is directly under threat for the first time since Saddam.
To be sure, the US had always supported the Saudis (notably supplying their war on Yemen under Obama), but had previously balanced this with backing for other (often equally dictatorial) governments in the region. A good example is fellow Sunni dictatorship and US base-hosting Qatar, which is now the subject of a Saudi siege. Qatar has long differed with Saudi on the details of foreign policy — including which Sunni militants to support in foreign countries. (Despite both seeking Assad's ouster by an explicitly anti-Shi'a, Sunni theocratic government, Saudi and Qatari backed groups have long been at each other's throats in Syria.) It now appears that the US is backing the Saudis' move against Qatar — and has, indeed, claimed credit for it.
We have, as yet, no proof that the Iranian bombing and the siege of Qatar are connected or that the attack on Tehran was directly commanded by the Saudis (although the level of sophistication behind the attacks and the fact that they penetrated notoriously tight security already suggest something out of the ordinary — Daesh did what Al Qaeda never could). Both events do, however, suggest that Saudi Arabia and its extremist allies feel that they have the US' blessing to act much more forcefully against its enemies (real or perceived). Given that historic enemies Turkey and Iran are both mobilising in support of Qatar, they also suggest that calm heads will be needed to prevent the US (and its supporters like Australia) from being dragged into a wider Middle East war with distinctly unsavoury allies and with consequences which are likely to devastate the region for years to come.
Fr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.