Iran and Kuwait close ranks

By Hooman Peimani

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/middle_east/DI25Ak01.html
September 25, 2002

On September 29, Kuwait’s Defense Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak will pay an official visit to Iran, its regional friend since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led to a thaw in their hostile relations. Reacting to news connecting his visit to the proposed American war against Iraq, the Kuwaitis have described it as “previously arranged” and “unrelated to the developments in the region”. However, the Iraqis have portrayed it as aimed at coordinating Iran-Kuwait efforts “for their collaboration with a future American war against Iraq”.

Besides the historical mistrust between Iraq and its neighboring Iran and Kuwait, the visit to Kuwait of General Tommy L Franks, commander of the American forces in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and his talks with Sheikh al-Mubarak, have created grounds for such claim.

While both Iran and Kuwait are trying to explain the visit as part of their efforts to expand bilateral relations, there is little doubt, if any at all, that the proposed American war and its impact on regional security are major factors behind the visit. In fact, there are indications of an emerging common stance among Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on that war, a response to the regional realities and the American determination to attack Iraq with or without United Nations approval.

The opposition of Iran and Saudi Arabia to an American war against Iraq is a well-known fact. Undoubtedly, the two states are against the Iraqi regime for its posing a threat to their security, as reflected in its war against Iran (1980-88), in its 1990 occupation of Kuwait and threatening to invade Saudi Arabia, and in its 1991 missile attack on Saudi cities. However, they are worried about a future American war’s impact on the stability of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, including that of their own countries. Also, they cannot accept its objective of regime change, which, while undermining all explicit and implicit international laws, regulations and agreements, would set a precedent applicable to their countries as well. Having troubled relations with the Americans creates another disincentive for the Iranians.

The Iranian and Saudi opposition to an American war against Iraq has not been a secret, but Kuwait’s opposition to a war against the country, which invaded and annexed it in 1990, sounds surprising in the very outset. Notwithstanding their apparent animosity towards the Iraqi regime, the Kuwaitis share the Iranian and Saudi concerns, while they, like the Saudis, are worried about the long-term implications of their collaboration with the Americans, should their war fail to achieve its objectives. Alternatively, in case of success, the uncertainty about the nature of the future regime and its long-term policy towards Kuwait make the Kuwaitis question the wisdom of a regime change. As the proponents of Iraq’s territorial claim to Kuwait are not confined to the current Iraqi leaders and their Baath Party, the Kuwaitis have every reason to fear the reemergence of such a claim in the future. Potentially, it could be even more dangerous than the one put in practice in 1990, if it were made by an Iraqi regime on good terms with the United States.

Thus, the Kuwaitis have sought to follow a policy towards the proposed American war to reflect their concerns, while not alienating the Americans, who helped them regain their occupied country a decade ago. They have subjected their support of a war against Iraq to United Nations approval. While hosting tens of thousands of American military personnel, their uncertain consent to any American use of their military bases in the event of war has convinced the Americans to move the headquarters of their forces stationed in the Persian Gulf from Kuwait to Qatar.

The three Persian Gulf countries of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have reasons to get closer to each other as the threat of war becomes stronger. Their common concerns aside, this is partly a natural outcome of their improving ties, which began in the 1990s. This is also partly due to a geographical fact. As Iraq’s Persian Gulf neighbors, they will be the main regional beneficiaries or losers of such war, depending on its eventual outcome. Provided Iraq remained stable and undivided, a future Iraqi government with a positive attitude towards them would be a great security relief for the three states, which have faced the Iraqi threat to their national security over the past few decades in different forms and to a varying extent. However, the survival of the current Iraqi regime in the case of a failed American war would contribute to the intensification of its aggressiveness towards its neighbor in the long run. Likewise, a divided and chaotic Iraq run by any regime would lead to the export of instability from Iraq to its neighbors, including Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The three Persian Gulf countries of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have reasons to get closer to each other as the threat of war becomes stronger. Their common concerns aside, this is partly a natural outcome of their improving ties, which began in the 1990s. This is also partly due to a geographical fact. As Iraq’s Persian Gulf neighbors, they will be the main regional beneficiaries or losers of such war, depending on its eventual outcome. Provided Iraq remained stable and undivided, a future Iraqi government with a positive attitude towards them would be a great security relief for the three states, which have faced the Iraqi threat to their national security over the past few decades in different forms and to a varying extent. However, the survival of the current Iraqi regime in the case of a failed American war would contribute to the intensification of its aggressiveness towards its neighbor in the long run. Likewise, a divided and chaotic Iraq run by any regime would lead to the export of instability from Iraq to its neighbors, including Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

As well, this has become apparent in the similar Saudi and Kuwaiti stances on their collaboration with the Americans in the case of a war, which they both envisage within the context of a United Nations operation. Even though Iran rejects cooperation with the United States in any war against Iraq, and will not host American troops in its territory, its position on such a war itself is gradually mirroring that of its Arab friends. Hence, it has demanded the full Iraqi compliance with the United Nation’s demands regarding the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction. As stated by its foreign (Kamal Kharazi) and defense ministers (Admiral Ali Shamkhani) among other figures, Iran will accept United Nations decisions in case of Iraq’s non-compliance, implying even a military action so long as it is authorized by that organization.

Against this background, close contacts and consultations between and among Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will likely continue, and even increase, as the three states have major stakes in the stability of their region and in Iraq’s future. Given the closeness of the Iranian and Kuwaiti views on Iraq, the visit of Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak will not likely lead to major changes in their regional policies. Yet it will probably lead to their common policies to deal with the consequences of a seemingly inevitable war against Iraq, which may not necessarily go their way.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

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