May 11, 2010 | Now Lebanon

The Shape of Things to Come With Iran

Just as Egypt’s judiciary handed down convictions in the case of a Hezbollah cell that it uncovered, reports surfaced that an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps cell had also been broken up in Kuwait. 

This type of Iranian action, while hardly new, is a harbinger of what’s to come once Tehran, which is seeking hegemony over the Middle East and senses an American retreat from the region, crosses the nuclear threshold. It also highlights the precariousness of any containment policy against Iran and its regional proxies.

The Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas first broke the story almost two weeks ago, and Kuwaiti and Saudi officials have since confirmed the existence of the cell. While officials have remained publicly tight-lipped about the specifics of the story, and an official order has been handed down forbidding the publication of any further information, several of the details in the newspaper reports are of interest. 

The members of the cell apparently included two stateless citizens (known as al-bidoun), a Lebanese citizen who acted as the cell’s liaison with the Iranians, as well as several military officers. One report in Al-Qabas, quoting informed sources, claimed the spy network extended to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – which was roundly denied by Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz. The Kuwaitis, however, are demanding an overhaul of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security agreement (which Kuwait had previously refrained from signing) in light of “new challenges,” likely meaning the threat of Iranian security breaches.

Kuwait has had something of a history with Iran and Hezbollah. In the 1980s, Kuwait suffered attacks and two infamous airliner hijackings at the hands of Hezbollah (in cooperation with the Iraqi Al-Daawa Party) and Imad Mugniyah, the man who would head the party’s external operations network until his assassination in 2008. 

After Mugniyah’s assassination, a commemoration rally was held for him in Kuwait, praising his legacy and absolving him of any wrongdoing against the state. Shia parliamentarians involved in the rally were expelled from their parliamentary bloc and placed in custody on suspicion of belonging to the Kuwaiti Hezbollah. The Kuwaiti authorities deported foreigners who had participated in the rally, which reportedly included Bahrainis, Lebanese and Iranians. 

The episode led to an intimidation campaign against Kuwait in Lebanon. Its embassy in Beirut came under bomb threat (followed by a telephone call from a Hezbollah official assuring the diplomats that they would be safe!). This led to a Kuwaiti government travel advisory warning its nationals to avoid Lebanon. And just to make sure the Kuwaitis showed respect to Mugniyah, a massive portrait of him was placed on the embassy’s wall by Hezbollah supporters. 

While it’s unclear whether the Kuwaiti cell indeed extended to Bahrain and the UAE, Bahrain has also been subject to subversive activities in recent years. On the eve of the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the Bahraini authorities announced the arrest of a group of Shia militants who had received training in Syria, accusing them of planning terrorist attacks during Bahrain’s national day celebrations. 

At around that time, on December 19, 2008, a massive rally was held in Manama at the call of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. The aim was to pressure Arab governments into helping end Israel’s blockade of Gaza. A few days later, the Gaza war started. 

As for the UAE, it followed Kuwait’s lead by deporting foreigners, especially Lebanese Shia. Starting in summer 2009, scores of Shia were suddenly expelled. A representative of those expelled linked the deportations to being “part of a community that supports the Resistance.” What prompted these expulsions remains unclear. However, given the role of Hezbollah’s networks in Iran’s regional activities, the decision was not particularly surprising.

All this shows how vulnerable Iran’s Arab neighbors are to Iranian manipulation, not least when it comes to their sectarian make-up. 

While its conventional military power is limited, Iran has engaged in such manipulation through the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force, amplifying its sway through its surrogates and through arms smuggling. The potential interplay between a nuclear Iran and its regional alliances raises serious doubts about the effectiveness of a containment strategy directed against Iran – which is, nevertheless, fast emerging as a consensus strategy in Washington. Especially unconvincing is the notion that the United States can place the burden of its containment efforts on the shaky scaffolding of the Gulf Arab states.  

Iran’s objective is to replace the US as the primary power in the Middle East, and to reshape the region’s security architecture. Tehran has been pushing the GCC countries to sign a new, collective security treaty with Iran, which has presented itself as the new regional security guarantor, therefore, implicitly, the acknowledged regional hegemony. Iran has been making it clear to its neighbors that the presence of American forces on their territory is a “source of instability” that must end. If Iran goes nuclear, it will have even more means to persuade these states of its displeasure.

The Iranian cell in Kuwait was reportedly monitoring, among other things, American movements and military bases in the country. While many might read such behavior as preparing retaliatory action in the event of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, there is an alternative interpretation: a nuclear-armed Iran, through cells active in the weak Gulf Arab states, will seek to pressure those countries to terminate American basing rights on their soil and agree to new security arrangements that enhance Tehran’s regional influence. 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Egypt Hezbollah Iran Lebanon