Iran’s gradual efforts to improve its relations with Gulf Arab states appeared to reach an important turning point on Tuesday after the Iranian foreign ministry announced that Kuwait’s ruling emir would be visiting the Islamic Republic later this month in order to turn a “new page” in bilateral ties. According to a foreign ministry spokesperson, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah will visit Iran on May 31, in his first visit to the country since his ascension to the throne in 2006.
There had been talk back in February that the emir was planning a visit to Tehran just two months after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif took a tour of four Gulf nations, including Kuwait. The announcement that Sheikh Sabah is indeed planning to make the trip backs up his own foreign minister’s assertion that its relations with the Islamic Republic were continuing to grow stronger despite mounting tensions between Iran and Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia. It was with the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive diplomatic tactics that the government of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani began its charm offensive on the Gulf, taking steps to subtly undermine Riyadh’s position within the GCC.
Tehran is now heralding its diplomatic coup with Kuwait as evidence of a step towards a new era of Kuwaiti-Iranian relations. But, of course, the significance here lies less in the merits of this particular bilateral relationship than in its utility in facilitating Tehran’s objectives on the Gulf. While Saudi Arabia may have taken a new tack in its diplomatic dealings, their underlying strategy remains the same: mitigating the effects of Iranian influence in the region.
It is no coincidence that Tehran has put Kuwait in particular in its diplomatic sights. Kuwait, which is home to a significant Shi’ite minority, has traditionally avoided the same level of hostility in its ties with Iran as some of its Gulf neighbors. Like Oman, Kuwait has maintained a delicate balance between its political allegiances to the Gulf and its foreign relations with Iran. Oman may have served as the facilitator of Iran’s rapprochement with the West but it looks like Kuwait may be now up to bat to facilitate Iran’s diplomatic push on the Gulf.
In addition to Kuwait’s Shi’ite ties, Sheikh Sabah’s background as a skilled mediator and peacemaker position the small Gulf state as a crucial ally while Rowhani presses forward on this initiative. How this plays with Riyadh is, of course, a key question here. However, there is no better time for Kuwait to test the waters now that the Saudis have committed themselves to their new approach to the Iran issue — which includes issuing their own invitation to Zarif. While Riyadh will be sure to preserve the facade of its less outwardly confrontational diplomatic posture, it remains to be seen what pressures they will exert behind the scenes.