Iranian spy cell found in Kuwait, says Saudi interior minister

Kuwaitis concerned the case could create rift between Muslims as public prosecutor banned country's media from reporting on the case.

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KUWAIT CITY // Saudi Arabia's interior minister confirmed that an Iranian spy cell was dismantled in Kuwait at a Gulf security meeting on Wednesday as concerns grow that the case is leading to sectarian tension amid a media clampdown. Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al Saud said after a meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council's interior ministers in Riyadh that Kuwait had managed to "break down" a cell connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Associated Press reported.

Kuwait's interior minister, Sheikh Jaber al Khalid al Sabah, said at the meeting that the suspects are being investigated by the country's judiciary. The Kuwaiti government has said little about the espionage network that could cause a serious diplomatic rift between Iran and Kuwait since the story broke in the local press on Saturday. After mounting pressure, a government spokesman confirmed the existence of the investigation on Monday, without providing details, but the Saudi minister is the first to officially link the case with Iran.

The IRGC has described the allegations as an attempt by the Zionist media and its proxies to spread phobia against its organisation. Some Kuwaitis are concerned that the case could lead to tension between the country's Sunni population and its large Shiite minority and, on Tuesday, the public prosecutor banned the media from reporting on the case. Yesterday, a parliamentarian from the Islamic Salafi Alliance, Khalid bin Essa, said that the ban was "unconstitutional and unjustified".

"I don't know what the reasoning behind this [ban] is, but I assume it is risk control so that no damage can take place with the relationship between Kuwait and Iran. It should have gone through the due process of legislation." One Kuwaiti lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case, disagreed. He said the public prosecutor can ban reporting on a case if "it is a threat to public safety".

Mr bin Essa has called for a closed-door session to discuss the issue in parliament, but said he will wait "a week or two" to allow the investigation to take place before demanding that the government face MPs. The issue needs to be handled with "a great deal of caution" to avoid a rise in sectarian tension, he said. But sectarian divides are already beginning to surface and some Shiite MPs have spoken in Iran's defence.

The Salafi MP Waleed al Tabtabae sued the Kuwaiti Al Adala satellite channel on Wednesday after allegedly receiving a death threat from one of the station's announcers over remarks he had previously made when discussing the case suggesting some Kuwaiti Shiites support Iran. "I'm not afraid of death," Mr al Tabtabae told a press conference on Tuesday alongside MPs who were there to give him their support. "But for any MP to say something that does not please a channel and then for the boss to come and say 'he should have a bullet in his head'?"

Mr bin Essa said Mr al Tabtabae's remarks were justified because he had not accused a certain sect of wrongdoing, but suggested that collaborators should be hunted down and that "Iran should be held responsible". Yesterday in parliament, the speaker, Jassim al Kharafi, said Mr al Tabtabae did not need to worry because "Kuwait is a safe country and there are men who can protect you in it". Reports based on unofficial sources that had appeared in the local press before the public prosecution banned reporting on the case had said at least seven people were arrested in connection with the spy ring, some of whom work for the country's military. They had been collecting information on US and local targets in Kuwait, the reports said.