KUWAIT CITY, June 15 (UPI) -- The uncovering of a purported Iranian spy cell in Kuwait, a key U.S. military logistics base, and the apparent assassination in Syria of an Iranian general linked to covert operations has exposed Tehran's clandestine activities across the region.
Kuwaiti authorities were sufficiently alarmed by the spy cell disclosures made by the daily newspaper Al Qabas on May 1 that they slapped a news blackout on the reports in the local media.
But Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian officials have confirmed the al-Qabas report and diplomatic sources in the emirate said that at least 11 people, all Shiites, have been arrested since April 29.
They include six Kuwaitis, including members of the emirate's military, two Lebanese and at least one Bahraini. The Lebanese financed the cell and carried intelligence concerning U.S. and Kuwaiti military installations back to the Iranian cities of Mashhad and Isfahan.
The cell, these sources reported, was run not by Iran's Intelligence Ministry but by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful military force in Iran and close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It is likely that the operation was carried out by the Quds Force, which is responsible for the corps' clandestine operations outside the Islamic Republic and highly active throughout the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.
Senior Revolutionary Guards officers are based at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, where they essentially control the Islamic Republic's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.
The Quds Force figured in a separate occurrence involving Iranian undercover operations -- the apparent assassination of one of its senior commanders, Gen. Khalil Sultan, on May 16 at his home in the exclusive district of al-Mezzeh in Damascus.
Syria is Iran's sole Arab ally and is seen as complicit in Iranian subversion operations. Israeli sources say Sultan, who posed as a rich businessman, ran Quds Force covert operations in Syria and Lebanon, where the Saudis have immense influence.
He was killed by assailants who broke into his luxury home in an apparent robbery -- but took nothing, indicating a possible link to the activities of Iran's intelligence services.
The suspicion is Sultan was killed by the Israelis, who are waging their own shadowy war against Iran and Hezbollah, but who now share a common enemy with the gulf states in Iran.
Israel has been blamed for the assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah's military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, Feb.12, 2008, and of Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, a senior Syrian army officer close to President Bashar al-Assad and linked to Hezbollah, at his beach chalet at a luxury resort outside Tartous on Aug. 1, 2008. Mughniyeh worked for Iranian intelligence.
The guards constantly use Iranian-trained Hezbollah operatives of Lebanese Shiites around the Middle East, such as Iraq, for clandestine operations and for intelligence-gathering.
The gulf states have long been concerned that Tehran was using Shiite communities in the region for subversive purposes. Saudi Arabia has a large Shiite minority that dominate the kingdom's eastern provinces where its oil industry is centered.
Bahrain, an island state just off Saudi Arabia, actually has a Shiite majority but a Sunni monarchy that is close to the Saudi Arabia's ruling House of al-Saud.
At least one suspect linked to the Kuwait cell has been arrested in Bahrain. The tiny kingdom has long had trouble with its Shiite majority, which it claims is controlled by Tehran. Shiite militants have been active in Kuwait since the 1980s.
These disclosures have caused considerable alarm throughout the gulf Arab states.
"The two sides are in a state of cold war that has been ongoing since the Iranian revolution" in 1979, Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of al-Arabiya television, wrote in Saudi Arabia's Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
But regional intelligence officials say this has intensified greatly since Iran launched its current drive to become the region's paramount power following the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the main Arab bulwark against Iranian expansionism, in early 2003.
Fears among the Sunni regimes of the gulf have been heightened by expectations that Tehran will engineer a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq that will be essentially controlled by the Iranians to the detriment of the gulf Arab states.
These fears have been heightened by the prospect that either Israel or the United States, or both, will attack Iran to eliminate its nuclear infrastructure and drag the gulf states into a conflict they're desperate to avoid.