Kuwait’s Expulsion of Diplomats May Impact International Action against Iran

On Thursday, it was reported that the government of Kuwait had ordered the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from the country, along with the closure of the Iranian cultural mission. Agence-France Presse quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi as saying that the Islamic Republic had communicated its strong objection to this incident, in dialogue with the Kuwaiti charge d'affaires. In keeping with Tehran’s response to other supposed diplomatic affronts by both Arab and Western countries, the Iranian statement reported emphasized the country’s right to invoke reciprocal measures of its own.

The tone of this response was arguably reminiscent of the response, earlier in the week, to Washington’s announcement of new sanctions against 18 individuals and entities with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the country’s ballistic missile program. On Tuesday, the Iranian parliament quickly passed a bill purportedly targeting American “adventurism” in the region, in part by allocating more than a quarter of a billion dollars each to ballistic missile development and to the IRGC’s foreign special operations branch, the Quds Force.

The new US sanctions were imposed one day after President Donald Trump begrudgingly certified Iran’s compliance with its basic requirements under the 2015 nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As the Trump administration has backed down from – or at least delayed – promises to tear up that agreement, it has sought to get tough on other examples of Iran’s destabilizing activity. This is in keeping with positions Trump had expressed both before and shortly after his presidential inauguration, as when he urged the US State Department to consider designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization.

The hardline paramilitary’s well-established support for terrorist activity is very much at the center of the new diplomatic flap between Iran and Kuwait, as well. The Kuwaiti government’s decision is supposedly an outgrowth of two-year-old case involving security force’s disruption of a terrorist cell that had stockpiled weapons and appeared to be planning bombings inside the country. In the aftermath of the seizure of those weapons and the associated arrests it was widely reported that the terror cell had links to both the IRGC and the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera explained the supposed connection between this incident and the ouster of Iranian diplomats, but it failed to explain why that ouster was taking place now. The timing of the Kuwaiti decision is potentially very significant. For one thing, it stands to have an impact on a pre-existing diplomatic crisis that had already developed among Arab powers, which may have been providing Iran with leverage to break up Arab unity at a time when the Gulf Cooperation Council was working to push back against growing Iranian influence in the region.

The Al Jazeera report even went as far as to say that the GCC’s very existence was under threat from the crisis, in which three members – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – severed ties with a fourth – Qatar – over its apparent willingness to pursue improved relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Kuwait, also a member of the GCC, had been acting as a mediator between the two sides, while Iran has sent food shipments to Qatar in order to make up for what has been withheld by the Arab powers. This, of course, has helped Qatar to extend its defiance of erstwhile regional allies while they tried to encourage the country to come back into the fold and sign onto assertive policies toward the Iranian regime.

The new diplomatic conflict between Kuwait and Iran naturally raises questions about whether Kuwait’s mediating role will be affected. Although there is no clear answer to this at the moment, Iranian officials quickly adopted the strategy of simply ignoring the Kuwaiti attempts at reconciliation among regional powers. “It is regrettable that Kuwaiti officials, in this sensitive situation in the region, instead of making an effort to reduce useless tensions... have targeted the Islamic republic with baseless accusations,” Qassemi said in his meeting with the Kuwaiti charges d’affaires.

As well as disregarding Kuwait’s concerns about an IRGC link to the terror cell, the Iranian regime also denies the much more general and well-founded accounts of IRGC-linked terrorist activity. These denials are of course being utilized to justify the emerging Iranian threats of reciprocal measures against any foreign states that put pressure on the IRGC or the regime itself. This now includes Kuwait, and certainly the United States as well.

On Thursday, Reuters reported that Iranian state media had quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as saying that his country would “resist” American sanctions. The president, often described in Western media as relatively moderate, described the newly imposed sanctions as “one of the plots of the Americans,” with the end goal being to trick Iran into violating the nuclear agreement on its side.

It remains possible that the White House will cancel that agreement on its end, given Trump’s apparent reluctance to certify Iranian compliance the first two times he was required to do so. But it is also possible that the new sanctions measures are only part of a strategy of focusing attention on other matters of concern stemming from the Islamic Republic, among which is its support for terrorism.

If the latter is the case, one measure that the US president might undertake is to press for the withdrawal of licenses allowing Boeing and its Europe-based competitor Airbus to sell commercial aircraft to Iran. Foreign Policy Magazine published a thorough editorial this week advocating for Trump to do just this. The article noted that the IRGC is deeply ingrained in the Iranian economy and has been known to co-opt commercial aircraft for its smuggling of weapons and fighters to foreign combat zones and terrorist cells. Consequently, the authors argue, virtually any Western business deals with the aviation sector would run a risk of financing or otherwise materially supporting terrorist groups.

The Foreign Policy article also made reference to the growing tensions between the Iran and the GCC. It pointed out that Boeing already sells military equipment to Saudi Arabia, and that new deals with the Islamic Republic could endanger this relationship and generate pushback from the Arab powers unless President Trump stepped in to prevent such issues from manifesting in the first place.

Although the president has remained silent about the Boeing deal, he has personally bolstered arms sales to Saudi Arabia, signing new agreements during a May visit to the Arab country. That visit coincided with an Arab Islamic-American summit, which generated joint statements explicitly decrying Iran’s regional activities.

It is generally understood that strengthening relationships with established regional partners is a major part of the Trump administration’s emerging policies of opposition to Iran, and it now stands to reason that Kuwait could be more deeply integrated into those plans, provided that its relationship with Iran continues to break down following the expulsion of diplomats.

After certifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration indicated that it would be undertaking a comprehensive review of its Iran policy. It is possible that other adversaries and potential adversaries of the Islamic Republic will be doing the same in the days to come, as they react to the political realities established by Washington’s ongoing pursuit of sanctions and other assertive measures.

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