KUWAIT CITY — Kuwait announced Thursday it is to expel a number of Iranian diplomats for alleged spying that dates back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in a fresh blow for Arab-Persian ties across the Gulf.
Sunni-ruled Bahrain, a fellow Gulf state and scene of protests led by its Shiite majority, has accused Shiite Iran of meddling in its affairs and elements of the Bahraini opposition of links with Tehran.
The unrest and charges of Iranian ties have raised concerns in the Sunni monarchies of the oil-rich Gulf, which sent a joint military force to Bahrain where security forces crushed an anti-regime protest movement on March 16.
Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Sabah told reporters that Kuwait is to expel an unspecified number of Iranian diplomats for alleged links to a spy ring working for Tehran, reportedly ever since the invasion of Iraq.
"There will be action against a group of Iranian diplomats... They will be considered persona non grata and expelled from Kuwait," he said.
The foreign minister charged that the diplomats had proven links to the suspected spy ring, three members of which a Kuwaiti court condemned to death to Tuesday.
Iran dismissed the Kuwaiti claims as baseless and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the Islamic republic did not interfere in Kuwait's internal affairs, Iran's official news agency reported on Thursday.
Salehi, in a telephone conversation with Sheikh Mohammed, also dismissed as a "conspiracy" the death sentences issued on Tuesday by a Kuwait City court.
"The old issue raised by a court in Kuwait and linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran is a plan pursued by those malevolent (forces) who do not desire good relations between the two countries," Salehi said.
"This (plan) is nothing but a conspiracy aimed at creating discord between Islamic countries in the region," he added, IRNA reported.
The two officials also agreed to "continue consultations to resolve the raised misunderstandings," IRNA said.
The three men condemned to death -- two Iranians and a Kuwaiti -- were all serving in Kuwait's army when they were arrested in May 2010.
The court, in closed-door sessions, heard charges that the spy ring had passed on confidential military information, taken pictures of military installations in Kuwait and spied for Iran.
"What we saw in the ruling has shocked us... that there is a conspiracy network linked to official sides in the Islamic republic," said Sheikh Mohammed.
"As a result we have set up a foreign ministry crisis cell and recalled our ambassador" from Tehran, he said, adding that Iran's charge d'affaires was summoned to the foreign ministry and handed an official protest.
Kuwaiti media said the men confessed to photographing Kuwaiti and US military sites for Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, although the defendants denied the charges and said confessions were extracted under torture.
Al-Qabas newspaper said three Iranian diplomats were involved in the spy cell but the court could not prosecute because of their diplomatic immunity.
Iranian diplomats started to recruit members of the ring a decade ago, according to the daily which cited details of the court ruling.
It said cell members had during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq supplied Tehran with information on Kuwaiti army and coalition movements stationed in the emirate, used as a springboard for the campaign.
Analyst Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai said the expulsions were unlikely to have a long-term impact on ties between Kuwait and Iran.
The Kuwaiti government was "under huge pressure from Sunni MPs... and the media to take action, not to let this go without proving their displeasure," Alani said.
He said the espionage ring was collecting information mainly on US military installations in Kuwait, as part of a pattern of recruiting local Shiites or nationals of Iranian origin in the Gulf to spy on Arab neighbours, Alani said.
About 45,000 Iranians live and work in predominantly Sunni Kuwait, which also has a sizeable Shiite minority.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »