The Islamic Republic called allegations that it supported the Abdali cell as “baseless,” and blamed the expulsions on “the pressure of Saudi interventionist policies.”
In his article for Al-Arabiya, Ali al-Shihabi writes, “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,” and says that this narrative continues, “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, … that engagement would empower Iranian ‘moderates’ at the expense of the ‘hardliners’. 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”
Although this sounds reasonable, the Saudi Kingdom bases its policies for dealing with the Islamic Republic on what Tehran does, rather than on what it says.
“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,” Ali Shihabi writes.
Kuwait has consistently striven to balance its loyalties to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with a policy of constructive engagement with Iran. It has worked to develop bilateral ties with the Islamic Republic and to mediate rapprochement between Iran and the GCC. After President Hassan Rouhani was elected, Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister commemorated the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran, and publicly rebuked the GCC policy of isolating Iran, saying, “We cannot imagine not having talks with Iran considering its weight, size, and role in the region.”
Kuwait’s Emir met with Supreme Leader Khamenei, and 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. Kuwaiti efforts helped win support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear agreement.
Kuwait publicly supported Iran’s right to maintain a peaceful nuclear program in 2007, and publicly opposed a prospective US military strike on the Islamic Republic. In 2010, the Emir called for resolving the nuclear standoff through “dialogue, peaceful means, and adherence to the principles of international legitimacy.” Kuwait was the only Gulf state to send congratulatory telegrams to all seven heads of state involved in the negotiations that resulted in the nuclear deal. 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.
The rest of the GCC were suspicious of Tehran’s intentions, and only the UAE praised the agreement.
Kuwait also refused to cut diplomatic ties with Iran following attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran and Mashhad, and despite publicly backing Riyadh in Yemen, Kuwait has offered virtually no material support for the coalition. It defied Riyadh by reopening its embassy in Assad-controlled DamascusIn 2014, and in 2011 it declined to participate in the Saudi–Emirati operation in Bahrain.
Still, with Kuwait’s many gestures of goodwill toward the Islamic Republic, it has not responded in kind. After years of negations, Iranian promises of natural gas reaching Kuwait markets have not materialized. Instead, the Iranian National Oil Company published a pamphlet in 2015 that invited foreign investment in Dorra field, which it shares with Kuwait, without informing Kuwait.
Worse yet, according to Ali Shihabi, “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.”
Following the discovery of the Abdali cell, Kuwait responded by dispatching its foreign minister to Tehran with a handwritten note from the Emir to President Rouhani. 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.”
Kuwaiti news agency KUNA, reported that 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.”
Still, Tehran denied any role in the plot, despite the identification of an Iranian national among the Abdali cell members, as wells as evidence that several cell members trained with Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and the discovery of a huge cache of weapons. Furthemore, Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the trial proved that “Iranian sides helped and supported the cell members.” Tehran continued to deny any role even after 16 cell members who escaped “left the country by way of Iranian boats that were waiting for them.” It is likely that this 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,” writes Ali Shihabi, who adds, “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.” However, according to the Saudis and the GCC, on matters of regional policy, the difference between these the ‘moderates’ and the ‘hardliners’ is one of tactics, not strategy.
While Saudi Arabia supported the Emir’s decision to expel the Iranian ambassador, it did not orchestrate that expulsion. Tehran has only itself to blame.