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Relations between Kuwait and Iran have undergone serious diplomatic turmoil over the past decade, yet the two countries have still been able to put aside their differences and work on areas of mutual interest. Recently, debate has been focused on the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. But the real issue for Kuwait and many other Gulf Cooperation Council states remains Iranian destabilizing activities in the Middle East, and no nuclear deal is going to eliminate them immediately.
Senior Kuwaiti officials, including the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, have supported Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and have emphasized the importance of resolving the issue through diplomatic means. The Kuwaiti government also stressed that it will not support military action against Iran. Kuwait’s strategic calculation is that an unnecessary war with Tehran will entail serious economic and security risks to the region.
Kuwait’s concern with the Iranian nuclear agreement involves three considerations: environmental concerns, Iran’s behavior after the deal, and the U.S. role after implementing the deal. The environmental concerns mainly revolve around Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor located on the Gulf, from which Kuwait draws around 90 percent of its water via desalination. Kuwait’s environmental concerns were amplified because previous earthquakes have resulted in “cracks in concrete at Bushehr,” according to the World Nuclear Association. When a GCC delegation to Tehran told former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iranian nuclear technology is Russian made and a Chernobyl-like disaster could occur in Bushehr, he responded, “There is no need to worry because they are employing Iranian technology in their nuclear plants.” The new Iranian administration could partially address this widely shared concern by operating the nuclear plants under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Convention on Nuclear Safety.
How the Iranians will act in the region after the nuclear deal is the second concern. While some view the accord as an opportunity for broader regional cooperation, others believe it will only allow Tehran to extend its interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon, and even in the Gulf states themselves. A senior Kuwaiti diplomat said he is “not too concerned with the Iranian nuclear program as much as with their covert operations.” This goes back to a series of Iranian-backed attacks in Kuwait: bombings of Kuwait Airport, vital economic facilities, and two foreign embassies in 1983; a failed assassination attempt on the Kuwaiti emir in 1985; the targeting of Kuwaiti oil tankers in the 1980s; and the hijackings of two Kuwait Airways airplanes in 1984 and 1988. More recently, in 2010, Kuwait broke up an Iranian espionage cell that planned to target strategic and military facilities in the country. Three Iranian diplomats were expelled from Kuwait after being linked to that spy ring a year later.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps does not seem capable of overlooking its revolutionary origins, and cynically refers to the Arab Gulf states as “mini-Shahs.” In fact, the Iranian regime also claims to have a monopoly over Shias in Kuwait and the Arab Gulf states. Kuwaiti Shias are about 20 to 30 percent of the population, and some of them share religious, social, and cultural ties with Iran. When an Iranian official visited Kuwait in March 1987, he asked the Kuwaiti government to improve its treatment of Shia citizens. The Kuwaitis were infuriated with such interference in their domestic affairs, and asked the Iranian delegation to leave immediately.
Some hardliners in Iran believe that their country can be the sole dominant regional power through a slow gradual expansion of influence in the Arab world. However, the record shows that Kuwait will take a military risk if needed to eradicate what it perceives as existential threats. Kuwait provided the U.S. army with substantial logistical and intelligence support in the 2003 Iraq War. Relations with Iran, however, have been improving under the government of President Hassan Rouhani compared to his predecessor Ahmadinejad. This was demonstrated by the emir of Kuwait’s visit to Tehran in June 2014 and the signing of several trade agreements.
Many policymakers in the Arab Gulf states are concerned about how the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is interpreting the deal and how this understanding will define the United States’ role in the region over the coming years. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with GCC foreign ministers in Qatar August 3 and offered wide-ranging security assistance to defend them against Iran or its proxies. But Gulf policymakers are still skeptical whether the Obama administration will have the will to roll-back Iranian influence in the region.
Kuwait’s foreign policy is based on balancing the influence of major regional actors. This explains why Kuwait donated $200 million to Iraq to support its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while joining the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen at the same time. It is not in Kuwait’s interest to have only one unchecked regional power.
At the same time, Kuwait believes that peaceful means should be devised to end the zero-sum game mentality in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The situation is simply not sustainable, and has caused a serious humanitarian disaster in the Arab world. The Iranian ambassador to Kuwait, Ali Enayati, told me that, “We disagree with Kuwait on Yemen, but we understand their position, and we will continue to work on other areas.” This pragmatic approach could provide an opportunity for diplomacy to be effective in solving regional issues.
Security is a prerequisite for commerce and prosperity. Both Kuwait and Iran have an interest in securing the sea-lanes and seaports to deliver their oil and gas shipments to global markets and to maintain oil at a reasonable market price. Future trade between Kuwait and Iran could be increased significantly from generally low historical levels, estimated to be $306.7 million in 2014, according to Kuwait’s Central Statistical Bureau. Kuwait recently welcomed the prospect of increased trade cooperation in maritime transport. But crucial matters must be settled to enhance security, build trust, and improve trade in the region. A stable, inclusive Iraq will help the two countries defeat their mutual enemy, ISIL. The situation in Syria and Yemen can only be resolved through political means. And Kuwait can play a constructive role in narrowing the gap between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The nuclear deal is not an end in itself to Kuwait. And it will not imminently alter Iranian behavior in the region. But it provides an opportunity to de-escalate regional and sectarian tensions, fight extremism, and sharpen regional states’ focus on economic cooperation.
Hamad Althunayyan is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Maryland, College Park. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in political science from Virginia Commonwealth University and Master of Arts in international relations from American University in Washington, DC. He has written several articles on Gulf security and the U.S. role in the Middle East.
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