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KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Kuwait said on Thursday it is shutting the Iranian cultural mission and calling for a reduction in the number of Iranian diplomats stationed in the country, deepening a rift between the Gulf Arab states and Tehran.
The official Kuwait News Agency announced the move in a brief statement, linking the decision to the case of a terror cell broken up in 2015 that authorities allege had contacts with Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The Iranian ambassador to Kuwait has been notified of the decision, the news agency, known as KUNA, reported.
Embassy staff did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported that the country's foreign ministry summoned the Kuwaiti chargé d'affaires in Tehran to explain the move. The ministry is protesting the call to cut the number of diplomats stationed in Kuwait, IRNA said.
Later, the ministry's website, mfa.ir, reported that the spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, rejected all accusations against Iran and said that Tehran will take counteraction.
The 2015 case centers on a group of 26 people known as the al-Abdali cell whose arrests for links to Shiite powerhouse Iran touched on sensitive sectarian issues in Kuwait, a Sunni-majority country.
Besides having "furtive contacts" with Hezbollah and Iran, its members were accused of weapons possession and of planning "hostile actions" inside Kuwait, a tiny U.S.-allied Arab state wedged alongside the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Members of the cell have been tried and received sentences ranging from a few years in prison to, in one case, the death penalty. That sentence was later reduced on appeal to life imprisonment.
Kuwait's decision to expel the diplomats comes at a time of increased tension among the states lining the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are deeply mistrustful of Iran and many, though not Kuwait, have severed ties with it.
A group of three Gulf states plus Egypt, meanwhile, has severed ties with Qatar, accusing it of a host of misdeeds, including supporting extremist groups and maintaining close ties with Iran, with which it shares a massive underwater gas field. Qatar denies supporting extremists, and says the dispute is politically motivated.
Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.