Kuwait has ordered Iran to reduce its embassy staff and close down its technical offices in the Gulf Arab state following a court case which implicated “Iranian parties” of involvement in a spy cell, state news agency KUNA said on Thursday.
Last year Kuwait convicted 23 men – one Iranian and the rest Kuwaiti – of spying for Iran and Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah after a cache of guns and explosives were discovered in a raid of the so-called “Abdali cell” in 2015.
In a case which stoked unusually severe tensions between the two OPEC members, Kuwait’s highest court changed some of the sentences last month.
Iranian state television said Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry summoned Tehran’s ambassador and ordered the number of diplomats to be cut from 19 to four and the closure of the cultural and military missions.
KUNA, citing a foreign ministry source, said Kuwait had also decided to freeze any activities involving joint committees between the two countries.
“The government of the state of Kuwait decided to take actions in accordance with diplomatic norms and in abidance with the Vienna conventions with regards to its relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” acting Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah said in a separate statement.
Officials at the Iranian embassy were not immediately available for comment.
“Kuwait claims that Iran has tried to interfere in the internal affairs of the country,” Iranian state television reported.
Kuwait, which has a large Shi’ite Muslim minority, sits in a difficult geographical position close to two major regional powers and arch foes – mainly Shi’ite Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.
It is also trying to be a mediator in a separate, more wide-ranging dispute between Qatar and Gulf Arab states which accuse Doha of being an ally of Iran.
Last month Kuwait’s highest court overturned a death sentence against a man connected with the Abdali case.
It also lowered the life sentence for another man to 15 years in prison, and sentenced several others previously judged “not guilty” to 10 years.
Earlier this week the Interior Ministry said that anyone withholding information about the location of the men newly-sentenced by the court should contact authorities or face prison and fines, implying that the men were on the run.
It posted pictures of the 16 men and said anyone who concealed information about them or helped them to escape would face a two-year jail term and a KD1,000 ($3,305) fine.