Affluent Kuwait worried, but not panicked, about Iranian resurgence

An advance wave from the resurgent Iranian revolution is already washing over this wealthy, cautious, highly vulnerable little nation.

There is no great fear of an Iranian invasion here -- at least not yet. Instead there is a great deal of hand-wringing about what it may take to ensure that life goes on normally now that Iran has turned the tide in the 20-month-old war with Iraq and is demanding that the Gulf Arab nations modify their political policies.

''Nobody knows what will happen now,'' says Ali Yousef Hassan, a Kuwaiti civil servant. ''We know we will fight for our country to the last Kuwaiti. But we hope it will not come to that.''

What is of most concern to Kuwaiti and other Gulf leaders today is whether the Iranians will choose to invade Iraq or whether they will accept some sort of mediation and war reparation payment and scale down the conflict.

Conflicting statements by Iranian officials concerning the extent they will press to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has added to the confusion.

Meanwhile, recent reports from Riyadh have spoken of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, which includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) offering Iran $25 billion in reparations. Kuwaiti officials could not confirm even that an offer was being made, but if one was put forth, it was more likely to be cast as ''postwar reconstruction aid'' than as reparations.

The Kuwait daily Al-Anbaa said the GCC had proposed a peace plan entailing a cease-fire, an Iraqi withdrawal, and recognition of the prewar Shatt al Arab border.

The Kuwaitis seem anxious to settle the long, costly war. They see themselves as most imperiled if fighting spreads or if Iran attempts to subvert Gulf countries.

Kuwait's two-decade existence has been characterized by careful manuevering among the regional giants that surround it: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. In 1962 and again in 1973, Kuwait outmaneuvered Iraqi bids to gobble it up. Now Kuwaitis offer what a diplomat calls a ''visceral support'' for the Iraqis against Iran. Their most important regional ally at present is Saudi Arabia, and most Kuwaiti diplomatic moves in the Iran-Iraq affair occur with Saudi foreknowledge.

Kuwaitis say they do not feel particularly threatened by Iran's Shia fundamentalism. Kuwait is a religiously conservative, though tolerant, society. But almost 30 percent of the 550,000 Kuwaitis -- out of a total resident population of 1.35 million -- are Shiites; almost all the remainder are Sunni, the officially sanctioned and supported branch of Islam in this part of the Arab world.

Since the Iranian revolution -- and especially since the Iranian military resurgence this year -- suspicions of the Shia potential as a fifth column in Kuwait and throughout the Gulf have increased.

''Ayatollah Khomeini makes more (Kuwaitis) suspicious of Shiites,'' says a veteran diplomat here. ''Before Khomeini, this was not a major issue.''

In the past three years, few Shiites have been appointed to sensitive military or governmental posts in Kuwait, though their place in the business community, where they are among the most active and wealthiest merchants and landowners, remains unimpaired.

Shia mosques are not considered particular hotbeds of subversion in this country. Yet the potential remains. In September 1979, the Kuwaiti government expelled a radical Shiite imam and 18 followers as a warning to other Kuwaiti Shiites not to preach or work against the state's interests.

Diplomats here say the Kuwaitis are purposely following an ''ambiguous'' policy in the Iran-Iraq conflict and that it is likely to grow more ambiguous rather than more polarized as the Iranians get closer to the Iraqi border (and, by extension, the Kuwaiti border, which at its nearest is only 12.5 miles from Iran).

Ayatollah Khomeini's warnings to Kuwait to cease sup-plying Iraq with money and goods during the war are likely to be officially ignored but quietly complied with. This could mean that Kuwait will stall on what is believed to be a new Iraqi request for a $2 billion, interest-free loan (already Kuwait has loaned Iraq $6 billion since the start of the war).

And though it would be a financial strain in times of depressed oil revenues, the Kuwaitis might contribute several billion dollars to a reparations or settlement agreement if it would ensure the removal of the threat to their existence.

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