Regardless of the nuclear deal's fate, Kuwait will work with Iran

8 min read
15 August, 2022

Kuwait's balanced foreign policy works to advance pan-Arab causes while promoting stability in the Middle East through international and regional institutions, such as the United Nations, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Arab League.

For decades, Kuwait’s leadership has played mediating roles in Middle Eastern conflicts and disputes.

In the past two years, Kuwait’s mediation efforts helped resolve both the 2017-21 GCC crisis and the 2021-22 diplomatic row between Lebanon and some GCC members.

Kuwait currently faces challenges stemming from the dwindling prospects for a restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) while the US and Israel’s tensions with Iran remain dangerous.

"Kuwait has generally not gone as far as some of the more hawkish GCC members in terms of posturing against Tehran"

Kuwait must contend with the real risk of such friction spiralling out of control and the disturbing possibility of another war erupting in the Middle East.

It is therefore using its diplomatic cards to try to minimise the odds of this extremely destructive scenario playing out.

With the GCC closer to a state of relative unity in the post-al-Ula period and growing diplomatic engagement between Iran and Kuwait’s fellow Gulf Arab monarchies, Kuwait’s leadership will most likely seek to mitigate the risks of such a conflict through institutions such as the GCC.

A history of Kuwait-Iran relations

Following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution there has been much fluctuation in Kuwaiti-Iranian relations.

Despite being one of the first states to formally recognise the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, Kuwait’s relationship with Tehran was deeply problematic throughout the 1980s.

Kuwait supported Baghdad for most of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) while Iranian-sponsored subterfuge on Kuwaiti soil throughout that decade did much to inform a Kuwaiti view of Tehran as a predatory actor which threatens Arab countries.

Yet after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iran’s opposition to Saddam Hussein’s aggression served to improve Kuwaiti-Iranian relations.

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Throughout this century, Kuwait has to various extents supported other GCC states’ initiatives aimed at countering Iran’s clout in the Arab region, underscored by Kuwait’s mostly symbolic role in Gulf-led efforts to quash the Arab Spring in Bahrain in 2011 and its participation in the Saudi-led military coalition’s war against Yemen’s Houthis rebels four years later.  

In 2011, 2016, and 2017, Kuwait took diplomatic actions against Tehran in response to Iran’s alleged meddling in Kuwait and/or to signal its solidarity with fellow GCC states.

The breaking up of the Abdali cell in 2015 contributed to Kuwaiti perspectives of the Islamic Republic as a regional troublemaker.

The Kuwaiti leadership realises how exacerbated tensions with Tehran have the potential to raise sectarian temperatures at home. [Getty]

Keeping a door open to good relations

At the same time, Kuwait has pragmatically worked to limit its tensions with Iran.

“Surrounded by three large neighbours in a tense region, Kuwait is acutely aware of its limitations as a small state,” Bader al-Saif, a Kuwait University professor, said in an interview with The New Arab.

“That is why its foreign policy has long championed reconciling differences and de-escalating conflict.”

Kuwait has its own interests in preventing its problems with Iran from escalating. The Kuwaiti leadership realises how exacerbated tensions in relations with Tehran have the potential to raise sectarian temperatures at home, where 30 percent of the national population is Shia.

Influential Kuwaiti Shia merchant families with ancestral roots in Iran, including the Behbehani and Dashti, are important to existing commercial ties between the neighbouring countries.

"Kuwait has historically been more forward positioned in its ties with Tehran in comparison with the more hawkish Arab Gulf states, at times positioning itself as a messenger between them"

Over the years, these factors have been important to understanding why Kuwait has generally not gone as far as some of the more hawkish GCC members in terms of posturing against Tehran.

Kuwait carefully balances its alliances with the GCC’s traditional hawks - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - on one hand, and its interests in having a healthy relationship with its Persian neighbour on the other.

For example, throughout the conflict in Yemen, Kuwait’s role in the Arab coalition has shifted in a more diplomatic direction, illustrated by the country’s decision in 2016 to host UN-backed peace talks, which involved Houthi participation.

Also, amid the January 2016 crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations Kuwait and Qatar withdrew their ambassadors from Iran.

That move went further than Oman’s reaction, which merely entailed a statement condemning the “unacceptable” violence against Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

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But Kuwait did not go as far as the UAE’s decision to downgrade relations, or Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's full severance of diplomatic ties with Tehran.

Such a balanced reaction to the escalating tensions in the Gulf highlighted how much Kuwait valued the need to show loyalty to its Saudi ally while simultaneously positioning itself to easily pursue better relations with Tehran down the line.

During the years that followed the cutting off of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations, tensions soared in the Gulf. That friction put Kuwait in an uncomfortable position, as did the 2017-21 blockade of Qatar.

Kuwait found it difficult to manage the friction which built up during those years. Albeit without much success, Kuwait sought to mediate between GCC states and Iran in early 2017.

A period of pragmatism in the Gulf

Amid this current period of de-escalation between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Iran on the other, Gulf countries are engaging in greater diplomatic engagement due to a host of reasons pertaining to regional and international factors.

This year Kuwait and Iran have been upgrading bilateral ties. Last month, the Iranian ambassador to Kuwait, Mohammad Irani, stated that Tehran’s chief diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian plans to soon visit Kuwait.

On 13 August, Kuwait’s ambassador to Iran, Bader Abdullah Al-Munaikh, handed his credentials to Amir-Abdollahian.

A picture shows the National Assembly in Kuwait City on 6 December 2011. [Getty]

“The presence of a Kuwaiti ambassador in Iran is an excellent opportunity to develop bilateral relations in all fields, quickly, to serve the interests of both countries,” said ambassador Irani. “This is a good beginning, God willing.”

From Kuwait’s perspective, Tehran’s efforts to warm its relations between with GCC states are positive.

“Kuwait welcomes the Iranian-Saudi talks and the Raisi administration’s stated focus on strengthening relations with its neighbours. The region has witnessed a thawing of relations on various fronts, and Kuwaiti-Iranian relations are no exception,” explained al-Saif.

“Kuwait has historically been more forward positioned in its ties with Tehran in comparison with the more hawkish Arab Gulf states, at times positioning itself as a messenger between them,” Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told TNA.

“More recently, though, Kuwait has prioritised coordination with its Arab Gulf allies. The Kuwaiti leadership doesn’t want to get out ahead of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. But as these states expand their ties with Tehran, Kuwait is sure to follow suit,” added Diwan.

"Reviving the JCPOA would be in everyone's interest, including Kuwait. Kuwait will work with Iran as it does with the rest of its neighbours, whether the JCPOA is revived or not"

Looking ahead, Kuwait will continue to have vested interests in the JCPOA being restored.

Although reviving the 2015 nuclear accord will not resolve all the problems between Iran and its neighbours, the deal’s restoration could help move the region toward great stability in the eyes of many Kuwaitis who would like to see the JCPOA reconstituted.

Notably, when the US unilaterally pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018, Kuwait did not join Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in terms of hailing that decision and lobbying the Trump administration to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran.

“Reviving the JCPOA would be in everyone’s interest, including Kuwait. Kuwait will work with Iran as it does with the rest of its neighbours, whether the JCPOA is revived or not,” explained al-Saif.

“A nuclear-free Middle East is important for the security of the region or else the region risks a nuclear build-up and conflict - both of which are certainly not in Kuwait’s interest or that of its neighbours.”

However, it is in Washington and Tehran, not Kuwait City, where decisions will be made which determine the nuclear deal’s fate.

Like all Arab countries, Kuwait will have to live with the outcome of the nuclear talks. Regardless of whether the JCPOA will be restored or not, there is every reason to expect Kuwait to continue to try to find ways to lower tensions between Iran and its neighbours, even if that is in a post-JCPOA future.

Diwan maintains that “Kuwait will be keen to prevent a return to sharp Arab-Iran polarisation”.

While actors in the Gulf sub-region are pragmatically trying to mend fences, there is far greater interest in seizing opportunities for greater cooperation in trade and investment.

Kuwait, Iran, and other states in the region are also focusing on bilateral and multilateral efforts to tackle ecological crises such as sandstorms which continue harming these countries’ economies and the health of their citizens and residents.

There is now a real possibility for Kuwait and Iran to improve their relationship and take advantage of these new circumstances amid an era of more pragmatism in the Gulf.

“A relationship built on mutual respect and sovereignty is the surest way to healthy relations between Arab states and Iran. This common understanding should frame the talks between [Kuwait and Iran],” said al-Saif.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero