Kuwait’s Iran Policy: Dimensions, direction

Alwaght– After weeks since Kuwait accused Iran of standing behind a terrorist cell and Tehran’s denial of any involvement in measures to destabilize the Arab sheikhdom, the Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled al-Jarallah has recently said that it was unfortunate that his country’s relations with Iran underwent such a negative development.

Commenting on the “Abdali cell”, named after northern area of Kuwait where the security forces allegedly discovered catches of guns and bombs, the top Kuwaiti Official said: “We published in a statement our official stance, but we are sorry to see this negative development happening to our relationship with Iran.”

In 2015, Kuwait claimed it uncovered a “terror cell” in north of the country. Since then, the Kuwaiti officials unleashed waves of accusations of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah links, something repeatedly denied by the Iranian officials.

Recently, Kuwait’s Al-Seyassah daily, quoting the interior ministry, has reported that 14 convicts of the Abdali cell fled to Iran. The report maintained that all of them were convicted of endangering the state security. The newspaper, however, did not provide evidence on the claim.

In July, Kuwait’s foreign ministry issued an order that Iran should reduce its embassy’s staff to four- down from 19 diplomats.

The Iranian foreign ministry said it recalled Kuwait’s charge d’affaires in Tehran for clarification and to protest over reduction in its Kuwait embassy’s staff.

To understand Kuwait’s policy shift towards Iran factors influencing the Kuwaiti foreign policy should be studied.

A demographic and economic snapshot first

Located on the southern coasts of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait has a population of 3.5 million with per capita income of $47,000 that makes it a well-to-do state, according to the International Momentary Fund. The sheikhdom reportedly has 70 billion barrels in oil reserves, which account for 10 percent of the global oil reserves.

Influential factors in foreign policy

The analysts assert that two major elements shape the Kuwaiti foreign policy. First, the need to comply with the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council’s stances and second the strategy to avoid meddling in other countries’ internal affairs due to lack of strategic depth. The small state made out that it is highly susceptible to foreign effects when for a short time in the early 1990s Iraq under Saddam Hussein seized its whole territories in a sweeping offensive. Since then, Kuwait leaders sought to adopt neutral foreign policy when it came to dealing with regional rifts. This included refraining from taking any severe political stances that could come costly to their regional position.

As a country with limited defense powers, Kuwait relies on foreign powers for self-protection. When in 1990 Iraqi forces fast invaded the state, the Persian Gulf Arab rapid reaction force failed to protect the Kuwaiti territories. The incident paved the way for US-led Western intervention. This taught the Kuwaiti leaders the lesson that they should follow a policy that takes them to go under US protection. During the Iraqi war against Iran in the 1980s, Kuwait’s merchant vessels flew American flags for safe movement in the Persian Gulf waters.

Relations with Iran

Iran was the first to recognize Kuwait as a state after its declaration of independence and opened embassy in Kuwait in January 1962. After Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 toppled the US-backed Pahlavi regime, Kuwait sent its Foreign Minister (the current emir) Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah to Tehran to recognize and support the new Iranian government. Nevertheless, when Saddam invaded Iran, Kuwait joined the league of pro-Iraqi Arab states and cut ties with Tehran and even backed Baghdad’s campaign.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait, Iran in the first hours and even before the Arab states, condemned the Iraqi invasion. Iranian experts after the war helped Kuwait extinguish fire at its oil wells. Tehran’s anti-occupation stances helped improvement of relations with Kuwait. All in all, the two countries have had acceptable levels of relations until recent disputes.

Where does Kuwait policy go?

Kuwait’s policy is largely dependent on the domestic status, something making the sheikhdom fail to make decisions independently. The form of its domestic policy shapes a balanced foreign policy. In other words, Kuwait, understanding its limitations, cannot take tough stances on other countries. It may every now and then issue anti-Iranian statements, but on the other side seeks saving good levels of relations with Tehran.