Is Iran Spying on Kuwait?

Last weekend a Kuwaiti newspaper dropped a bombshell (well, kind of). Kuwaiti security forces dismantled an Iranian spy cell operating inside Kuwait. According to reports a number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)–first it was 7 people, then 11, then 12–were caught spying on Kuwaiti and American military bases. Iran of course reacted angrily, denying any such spy network laying the blame on Zionist forces seeking to divide Gulf Arabs from their Muslim brethren in Iran.

So is Iran spying on Kuwait? Maybe. Is Iran spying in Kuwait? Absolutely. Let me explain.

Kuwaitis and the ruling elites from other Gulf countries are understandably wary about Iran’s growing military and regional presence. In the early years of the revolution, Iran actively sought to export its Islamic revolution to neighboring Gulf states, particularly those with sizeable Shia populations. While Iran was more active in promoting its cause in countries with Shia majorities governed by a Sunni (Bahrain), secular (Iraq) or mixed confessional (Lebanon) regime, it was still active in countries with non-negligible Shia minorities. In Kuwait, as in Saudi Arabia and much of the gulf, the Shia population (around 1/4 of the total Kuwaiti population) happens to live on areas where oil is located. And for an oil-dependent country like Kuwait, this means the Shia want to see their share of the oil money.

In the idealistic days of the Islamic Revolution, Iran would not think twice about stirring up opposition sentiment amongst the gulf Shia. Their illegitimate, corrupt, Sunni royal families were robbing the Shia of money that was rightfully theirs. They were living atop a pot of (black) gold, and yet they saw barely a dinar from this. The answer was revolution, an Islamic Revolution like Iran’s.

Such activities did not make Iran many friends in its neighborhood, and when Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 virtually all Arab states supported Saddam. They may have had their own reservations about his Baathist regime, but Iran was the more dangerous of the two. After the costly 8 year war Iran learned the cost of isolation, and after Khomeini’s death and beginning of Rafanjani’s presidency, the Islamic Republic took pains to repair broken relations with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Although there have been the occasional flare-ups, for more than two decades Iran has carefully pursued a regional strategy of pragmatism and accommodation. Iran has cooled its incendiary rhetoric, strived to build up intra-regional trade, and settled for exporting its revolution by example.

This is why I take claims of an IRGC spy cell in Kuwait with a dose of skepticism. Granted, I’m not one to automatically assume benign motives to Iran in any of its foreign relations. But after studying the history of Iran’s foreign policies since Khomeini, one is struck by how amazingly pragmatic–and dare I use the word, realpolitik–its behavior has been, at least on the regional stage. Iran clearly knows it has trust-building work to do with its Gulf neighbors. As it finds itself in a new position of power thanks to US-removal of its two neighboring threats (Saddam and the Taliban), Iran is trying to assure GCC countries of its peaceful rise. If Iran wishes to continue to build up its nuclear program and military presence in the Gulf, Iran will need the support (or at least tacit approval) of its neighbors. Stirring up trouble amongst the Kuwaiti Shia and incurring the angst of the GCC would be utterly counter-productive in this regard.

What I’m not skeptical about, though, is that Iran is almost certainly spying in Kuwait. Kuwait is a hugely important base for US troops in Iraq and the Middle East, and Iran of course is closely monitoring the US presence there. Again not totally benign, but not exactly destabilizing the country through Shia proxies.

For its part the Kuwaiti government seems to be trying to keep a lid on this. While security officials met to discuss this on the sidelines of a recent GCC conference and offered a few pointed remarks to the Iranians, the government had banned newspapers from covering this issue. Despite the entreaties of one anti-Shia, Hanafi-leaning Kuwaiti MP, the Kuwaiti authorities seem to be trying to resolve this issue with as little public ill-will as possible.

One final note of caution. While I still believe it’s extremely unlikely Iran is up to anything subversive in Kuwait, the IRGC has been prone to acts of adventurism, such as capturing British sailors in 2007 for crossing over into ‘Iranian waters.’ The topic of oversight of the IRGC deserves its own lengthy post, but IRGC units at times act on their own accord, and without the same appreciation for regional confidence-buildingof  the foreign policy elite. In the chance that some ‘rogue’ elements of the IRGC was up to something shady in Kuwait, I’d expect them to be quickly reigned in by the forces that be. We’ll see how this plays out over time, but in the week or so since the IRGC cell was dismantled, it’s been fairly quiet on the Gulf front.
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