On July 20, 2017, the Kuwaiti government ordered the expulsion of three-quarters of Iran’s diplomatic staff, including Ambassador Alireza Enayati, as well as the closure of the Islamic Republic’s cultural, trade, and military missions in Kuwait City. Kuwait’s decision followed last month’s Supreme Court ruling that found twenty-one Shia’a nationals and one Iranian citizen guilty of plotting “hostile acts” against the state, smuggling explosives and weapons, and receiving training and support from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Following the conviction, sixteen members of this “Abdali cell” (named for the border town where cell members gathered) escaped from prison to Iran.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the Islamic Republic dismissed allegations of support for the Abdali cell as “baseless,” blaming the expulsions on “the pressure of Saudi interventionist policies.” The eviction order for Enayati and his staff also caught many Gulf watchers off guard. Kuwait had never expelled an ambassador before and, irrespective of the Abdali conflagration, has consistently strived to balance its loyalties to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with a policy of constructive engagement with Iran. For example, even though the Abdali cell was first uncovered in 2015, Kuwait’s Emir has made several significant diplomatic pushes to deescalate rising tensions between the GCC and Tehran, the latest coming in January of this year.
Why, then, did Kuwait suddenly reverse course? Did the Emir, in fact, succumb to Saudi and GCC pressure to isolate Tehran, or was there another reason for halting his country’s overtures toward the Islamic Republic?
It is a common refrain in Western policy-making circles that the Saudi Arabia–Iran “cold war” is driven, in part, by Riyadh’s viewing the Iran issue as zero-sum: a win for the Islamic Republic is a loss for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and the GCC would harvest enormous political and economic dividends, the narrative goes, if only they would put aside their suspicions and work toward normalized relations with Tehran. After all, the narrative continues, that engagement would empower Iranian “moderates” at the expense of the “hard-liners.” And the stronger Iranian “moderates” become, the more common ground emerges between Tehran and the GCC, and the larger the peace dividend for all parties.
Such language is always seductive in its reasonableness, particularly because Iranian diplomats cleverly play on it by making positive remarks in English about Iran’s intentions to Western media to create an illusion that such a possibility exists. This tactic makes it all the more difficult for Saudi Arabia to explain to Western observers that the Kingdom bases its policies for dealing with the Islamic Republic on what Tehran does, rather than on what it says in English (indeed, Iran’s Persian-language rhetoric is a much more honest reflection of regime thinking).
Despite Saudi objections, there is one Gulf country that has pursued a policy of accommodation with Tehran. For the past decade, Kuwait has worked assiduously to develop robust bilateral ties with the Islamic Republic and mediate a larger rapprochement between Iran and the GCC. While it is true that Saudi Arabia expressed support for the Emir’s decision to expel the Iranian ambassador, Kuwait’s unique demographics, political structure, and foreign policy effectively prevented Riyadh from orchestrating that expulsion. For that, Tehran has only itself to blame.
The case of Kuwait is particularly illustrative because, in light of the Abdali incident, it unequivocally demonstrates to Western supporters of the accommodationist approach what the Saudis have been trying to communicate for decades: that adopting such a policy vis-à-vis an ideologically driven revolutionary state bent on regional hegemony is flawed, dangerous, and ultimately untenable.
Kuwait occupies a unique position in the Gulf. Of the country’s 1.3 million citizens, as many as one-third are Shia’a. Most of these are nationals, the descendants of seafaring Arab communities from Kuwait, Bahrain, and eastern Saudi Arabia, and émigrés from southern Iraq and Iran who resettled in the state beginning in the early 1600s. Over time, these diverse communities developed a cohesive and authentic Kuwaiti identity and became deeply integrated into the state’s social, political, and economic framework. Shia’a and Sunni fought side by side against Saddam Hussein; Al-Qurain Martyrs’ Museum, a converted home that was destroyed by the Iraqi army, commemorates a band of Sunni and Shia’a resistance fighters who perished together. Shia’a have won as many as seventeen seats in the fifty-member National Assembly (they currently occupy six), own conglomerates such as the Marafie Group, and play prominent commercial roles in a number of key industry sectors such as transport, construction, and retail.
Because of this long history, the sectarian divide in Kuwait, although present, is not nearly as pronounced as it is elsewhere in the region. In 2015, an ISIS attack on the Imam al-Sadiq Mosque killed 27 Shia’a worshippers and wounded 277. In the immediate aftermath, the octogenarian Emir made a highly symbolic visit to the site, where he challenged ISIS’s attempt to stoke sectarian tension in his country. “National unity,” he said, “is a protective fence for the security of the nation.” In response to the Emir’s speech, thousands of Sunnis and Shia’a took part in a mass funeral procession for the victims, while Kuwaiti social media accounts circulated images of both groups visiting and praying in each other’s mosques in a show of national solidarity.
That is not to say that Kuwait’s Sunni–Shia’a relationship is without its difficulties. Despite their coexisting for centuries, divergent ideologies compete within and between both groups, and all of these currents play against each other in Kuwait’s National Assembly, the Gulf’s most powerful parliamentary body. While the National Assembly’s legislative powers are limited according to Western standards, Kuwait’s members of parliament (MPs) are public figures who can override the Prime Minister and his cabinet, whom the Emir appoints, as well as the Emir himself. In addition, almost all MPs are freely elected. Because of this, their legitimacy does not depend on the goodwill of the ruler but on the support of constituents with clearly defined interests. As regional sectarian tensions escalate, so too does the pressure on MPs to publicly defend their coreligionists.
Because of this unique demographic and institutional combination, ruling Kuwait is about balancing competing interests at home and abroad. For example, in 2014 the government sided with the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, but in 2016, Kuwait chose not to follow Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE in severing or downgrading diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic following attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran and Mashhad. In the former instance, Shia’a MPs criticized the Prime Minister and his cabinet for ignoring civilian casualties, and in the latter incident, Salafi MPs chastised the executive body for its inaction, saying that as a result they abetted Iranian expansionism.
Kuwait’s foreign policy posture also contains a strategic component. As a small country surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait is the Gulf’s natural mediator and honest broker. In this capacity, the current Emir has worked to negotiate an amicable settlement between Qatar and the Arab Quartet. He has gone even farther in seeking positive relations with Iran and negotiating peace between the Islamic Republic and the GCC.
Following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister commemorated the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran, where he publicly rebuked the GCC policy of isolating Iran. “We cannot imagine not having talks with Iran considering its weight, size, and role in the region,” he said. The Deputy’s trip paved the way for an official visit by Kuwait’s Emir later that year. Following a meeting there with Supreme Leader Khamenei, the Emir stated, “Kuwait is completely prepared to open a new page in the relations between the two countries,” adding that he would pursue closer economic and financial ties with Tehran.
This reset was followed by Kuwaiti efforts to help win support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear agreement. In 2007, Kuwait publicly supported Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program and publicly opposed a prospective US military strike on the Islamic Republic. Three years later, the Emir called for resolving the nuclear standoff through “dialogue, peaceful means, and adherence to the principles of international legitimacy.” Following the signing of the accord, Kuwait was the only Gulf state to send congratulatory telegrams to all seven heads of state involved in the negotiations. The Emir expressed his hope that this “historic achievement” would “strengthen the security and stability of the area.” He also promised to invest in the Iranian economy and initiated negotiations to purchase Iranian natural gas. Suspicious of Tehran’s intentions, the rest of the GCC was not nearly as sanguine on the deal, with only the UAE offering mild praise for the agreement.
Kuwait’s overtures toward Tehran have been matched by the small state’s repeated deviations from Saudi foreign policy. As was previously mentioned, Kuwait refused to cut diplomatic ties with Iran following attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran and Mashhad (although it did, temporarily, expel Tehran’s ambassador). And, despite publicly backing Riyadh in Yemen, Kuwait has offered virtually no material support for the coalition. In 2014, it defied Riyadh by reopening its embassy in Assad-controlled Damascus, and in 2011 it declined to participate in the Saudi–Emirati operation in Bahrain. Kuwait’s independent streak is not a recent phenomenon; in 1963, the Kuwaitis overrode Saudi objections and allowed the Soviet Union, Riyadh’s mortal enemy, to open its only embassy in the Gulf.
And yet, Kuwait’s repeated gestures of goodwill toward the Islamic Republic have yielded little good and considerable ill. Long-standing promises of Iranian natural gas reaching Kuwait markets have yet to materialize despite years of negotiations. In fact, in 2015 the Iranian National Oil Company published a pamphlet inviting foreign investment in the disputed Dorra field, which it shares with Kuwait, without informing its smaller neighbor (Kuwait summoned Iran’s ambassador in response). The Emir’s call for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue was repaid with the uncovering of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard espionage cell. Following the discovery, Kuwait expelled three Iranian diplomats, recalled its ambassador, and sentenced three of its own residents to death. But, in keeping with its policy of peace through negotiation, Kuwait restored full diplomatic ties with Iran just three months later.
Even after the discovery of the Abdali cell, Kuwait responded reasonably, dispatching its foreign minister to Tehran with a handwritten note from the Emir to President Rouhani. Upon delivering this message, the foreign minister said that the Emir believed “it’s necessary that the differing views and misunderstandings between the countries of the region should come to an end in a calm atmosphere and through frank dialogue.” According to the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA, the note also established “the elements needed for dialogue,” chiefly, Iran pledging “non-interference in the internal affairs of the Gulf states, respecting their sovereignty, and establishing good neighborly relations.”
And yet, despite the identification of an Iranian national among the Abdali cell members, evidence that several cell members trained with Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, the discovery of a huge cache of weapons—the largest seized in Kuwait’s history—in several Abdali farmhouses used by cell members, and an unequivocal statement from Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry that the trial proved that “Iranian sides helped and supported the cell members,” Tehran denied any role in the plot. They continued to deny this role even when it was discovered that the sixteen cell members who escaped actually “left the country by way of Iranian boats that were waiting for them.”
It is likely that this last egregious action, the antithesis of “non-interference,” “respect for sovereignty,” and “good neighborly relations,” rather than Saudi pressure, was the last straw for Kuwait.
That Iran is divided between “moderates” and “hard-liners,” and that a policy of accommodation empowers the former at the expense of the latter, is the fundamental pillar of the Iran engagement narrative. It is true that there is a divide between these two camps: Iranian “moderates” believe that engagement with the West is necessary to end sanctions, unleash Iran’s economic potential, and resolve the Islamic Republic’s considerable financial and socioeconomic issues. Iranian “hard-liners” disagree, worried that any move to normalize relations with the United States, even solely on the basis of economic matters, will undercut their influence at home.
But what the Saudis and the GCC have been advancing, and what some Iran watchers ignore, is that, on matters of regional policy, the difference between these two groups is one of tactics, not strategy. Iranian “moderates” argue that a more robust economy will give Tehran the means to continue its policy of revolutionary expansionism, whereas Iranian “hard-liners” posit that Tehran already possesses the means to continue its policy of revolutionary expansionism. Both parties are united behind the principle of revolutionary expansionism because both parties believe that this is the only policy capable of upholding the religio-political legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, which keeps both “moderates” and “hard-liners” in power.
Kuwait learned the Iranian approach the hard way. Those Western analysts who continuously criticize Saudi Arabia’s deep mistrust of the Iranian regime would do well to evaluate this “case study” very carefully.