Iran’s Kuwaiti Opportunity: February 2nd Elections

Will a new Kuwait parliament, strengthened by the opposition’s popular support, be as amenable to an American troop presence in their country as in the past?<br/>Not if Iran can help it.<br/>

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Jay Radzinski,

Daniel Nisman co-authored this article. Both writers are intelligence managers for Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.

With new elections set during a period of high anti-government sentiment, Iran only stands to gain from the election of a Kuwaiti parliament which is strongly opposed to the United States.

After months of demonstrations, a persistent Kuwaiti opposition movement was able to utilize a corruption scandal to bring about the dissolution of the government while forcing the Emir to issue a decree calling for parliamentary elections on February 2nd.

The disbanding of the Emir’s government and the parliament per se are not uncommon in Kuwait, as both events have transpired multiple times in recent years.

However, this most recent governmental restructuring comes at a much different time – one where popular revolution has impacted nearly every country in the region. Until recently, Kuwait’s activist movement has shown disparity from it's counterparts in places like Bahrain and Syria. Kuwaitis by and large enjoy a good standard of living when compared to their regional neighbors, discouraging them from calling for the ousting of the monarchy itself.

But what also may show distinction in Kuwait’s protest movement are the unintended consequences, which may bring more power to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the region’s Shiite contender for regional influence.

It has been argued that Iran is waging a covert war against the Sunni Gulf kingdoms in an attempt to tip the balance of power against its longtime Sunni rival- Saudi Arabia.

Iran has already managed to position itself in a key role of influence in the fellow Shiite Iraqi government, much to the dismay of the United States. The United States is well aware of this trend and as it concluded its military presence in that country, American troops were filtered across the border to Kuwait to best be able to respond to any threat to Iraq’s security, namely from neighboring Iran.

Since the first Gulf War, Kuwait has been a relatively friendly home for the stationing of American forces in the region, as have other Gulf States.

Therefore, it begs the question, will a new Kuwait parliament, strengthened by the opposition’s popular support, be as amenable to an American troop presence in their country as in the past?

One of the many underlying sentiments throughout the Arab Spring revolutions is the distaste for American backing of regimes perceived to be oppressive by those ruled by them.

While organized political parties have traditionally been forbidden, a number of opposition candidates have banded together using populist and anti-American sentiment. These candidates include representatives of Kuwait's increasingly active Shia minority, as well as hard-line Salafists and other conservative Sunnis. 

In January 2012, a mass demonstration was held outside the American embassy in Kuwait city in solidarity with Guantanamo Bay detainees, organized by a candidate running in parliamentary elections. Moreover, protests in support of Bahrain's Shia-led opposition have been on the rise, suggesting that the country's Shia population aims to dissuade the government from its support for its counterparts in that nation.

While known for its especially vibrant political scene and relatively liberal constitution, the Kuwaiti Emir holds supremacy in all decision making. Nonetheless, due to the recent opposition movement in the country, the Emir has agreed to political reforms in an attempt to restore calm to Kuwait’s streets.

The Emir's tactics have become commonplace in monarchies across the region as well. The Kings of both Jordan and Morocco recently conceded to opposition pressure, in both cases resulting in a strengthening of Islamist groups within the political system.

Should Kuwait’s emboldened opposition pressure the Emir to demand that American forces leave the Gulf State, it would constitute a major victory for Iran.

The exit of US troops from Iraq has only increased Kuwait's stature as an American ally. Its location provides both a staging ground for any preventative action against the Iranian nuclear program in addition to a launching pad for any security operation in a destabilized Iraq. The re-positioning of nearly 15,000 troops to Kuwait has both drawn the ire of the local community while serving as the starkest reminder of the Emirate's key role in maintaining American influence in the Persian Gulf.

The Islamic Republic has persisted for a decade’s time with American troops on two of its borders, which has no doubt affected its maneuvering. Therefore, Iran will likely continue to exert its influence through Shiite populations in Kuwait and throughout the region as opportunities arise. The Ayatollahs have already been accused of fomenting unrest in Bahrain, which houses the United States’ naval 5th fleet, possibly signifying the potential it sees in fomenting unrest and strengthening the opposition there as well.

As a significant oil producer which sits at the crossroads of two major Gulf powers, Kuwait's geopolitical importance cannot be underestimated. As such, it is highly likely that Iran's enemies in both the United States and Saudi Arabia will be paying close attention to developments taking place on February 2nd.

Whatever the outcome, it appears as though Kuwait has indeed become the latest nation to become embroiled in the very dangerous regional tug-of-war.