May 22 2019
Oman's goodwill and relationships with the Muslim world and the West could prove vital, as they have historically, to ensuring that US-Iran tensions don't boil over.
Against the backdrop of escalating tension in Iran’s relations with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Sultanate of Oman’s Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah went to Tehran on May 20.
According to Iran’s state-owned media, bin Alawi and his Iranian counterpart discussed regional and global issues.
Although the specifics of the meeting between bin Alawi and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are not known to the public, it is a safe bet that the intense friction between Tehran and Washington was the main topic of discussion. Significant is that six days before Muscat’s chief diplomat visited Tehran the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a phone conversation with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
According to the State Department’s press release, Pompeo expressed his gratitude for the Sultanate and America’s “enduring partnership” and the “continued engagement and dialogue on the [Middle East’s] most challenging issues.”
Washington’s top diplomat and Oman’s head-of-state emphasised the importance of backing the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, and the two discussed the “Iranian threats to the Gulf region.”
Interestingly, one day after Alawi paid his visit to the Iranian capital, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan claimed that US actions have “put on hold” potential Iranian attacks that officials in Washington began warning off weeks ago albeit without providing any details. Although unclear if bin Alawi’s surprise visit to Tehran was connected to Shanahan’s statement, Oman is working to defuse tension in Tehran-Washington relations.
Bridge over troubled waters
Oman has experience in helping past US administrations, and the Iranian leadership find common ground for the sake of averting a military confrontation. There is a well-documented history of Muscat serving as a back channel between Iran and a host of countries including not only the US, but also the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt too.
In contrast to its immediate Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states, Oman has much goodwill in Iran. The foundation for this warm bilateral relationship predates the Iranian Revolution and the Shah’s ouster, and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic did not end the bonds between Muscat and Tehran that are based on mutual respect.
To the contrary, by remaining neutral in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and working with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein’s regimes to negotiate ceasefires during that conflict, Muscat established itself as a unique player in the Persian Gulf’s geopolitical order, serving as a friend of all and foe of none.
Unlike the leadership in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh, officials in Muscat have agreed that through accommodation, dialogue, engagement, and compromise that global and regional actors can moderate Tehran’s foreign policy.
Such thinking, which is characteristic of the Omani approach to conflict, marks a contrast with the Trump administration’s general strategy vis-a-vis Tehran which rests on threatening, sanctioning, and intimidating the Islamic Republic into fundamentally altering its behaviour in the Middle East, if not outright trying to carry out regime change in Iran.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, the diplomatic bridge to Tehran that goes through Muscat was crucial in terms of helping Trump’s predecessor navigate tricky waters. The most prominent examples were when it came to both securing the release of American political hostages held at Iran’s Evin prison on espionage charges in 2011 and hosting secret American-Iranian talks on the nuclear file that led to the watershed passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.
In the words of former Secretary of State John Kerry, the Sultanate offers Washington "wise advice and [helps] find solutions to various problems in the region.”
Notwithstanding how scores of analysts argued that Trump was far less likely than Obama to turn to the Omani back channel for communicating to Tehran, the current administration seems to perhaps appreciate the value in Muscat’s diplomatic services too.
While other states—namely Iraq, Qatar, Switzerland, and Russia—may assert themselves as the actors most capable of deescalating tensions between Tehran and Washington, it could be Oman that has the most success in this role in helping to bring the Americans and Iranians back to the table.
If this proves to the case, it would be yet another reason for the American leadership to be grateful for their ‘special relationship’ with Muscat that dates back centuries, however, took off in 1980 after a strategic military partnership was established in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Too much to lose, too proud to back down
Ultimately, both the US and Iran have too much to lose from a potential war that risks erupting as tension continues to escalate dangerously. Of course, Omani efforts aimed at minimising the possibility of such a military confrontation are also about the Sultanate’s national security, geopolitical, and economic interests.
Given that Oman and Iran share the Strait of Hormuz, such a nightmare scenario would make Muscat’s balancing act between Tehran and Washington perhaps too difficult to maintain with more pressure on the Arabian Sea monarchy to “pick a side”.
The Sultanate is responsible for preserving security in the strategic chokepoint separating the Musandam Peninsula and Iran. Thus, the leadership in Muscat will always see much importance in working with all actors in the Persian Gulf (including Iran) to ensure that tensions do not result in a crisis in or near the strait that would likely have extremely negative ramifications for Oman’s development and internal stability.
What Oman’s government would most desire is for the US to return to the JCPOA and for Iran to fulfil its obligations under the accord. Despite that being challenging to imagine, Oman will work to bring its close allies and partners—the US and Iran—farther away from the brink of war.
Although so many variables remain unknown, including the extent to which Iran’s leadership would care to engage with the Trump administration, it is to the credit of the Sultanate’s leadership that bin Alawi and other Omani diplomats continue exploring options that can potentially pave the way for greater understandings between a host of different state and non-state actors on different sides of geopolitical fault lines and sensitive regional issues.