Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Omani Conduit

by Paul Iddon

It is no surprise that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in the Sultanate of Oman. Oman after all has had quite a cordial relationship with Iran since 1979.

Sultan Qaboos and Ayatollah Khamenei.
“If asked … if our help is asked, we will give it. And this is what we are doing in Muscat and Oman. But we are fighting … terrorists. Some people call them army of liberation. But what are they? Just savages in the mountains, living like goats, and acting like terrorists.”

That was the last Shah of Iran in 1974 answering a question regarding the deployment of Iranian forces beyond Iran's own territory. The Shah took up the opportunity to rather haughtily dismiss the communist insurgency, which he was assisting the Sultan of Oman (Sultan Qaboo's) to put down. That effort consisted of some 1,200 Iranian Army forces decisively backing Qaboo's forces and helped him to overcome the threat to his rule. Saudi Arabia had supported the rudiments of that revolt against Oman some years earlier. Its relations with Oman weren't very cordial considering their prior clashing over who owned the Buraimi Oasis.

In relation to Iran-Oman relations 1974 was a very important year given the fact it was that year that both countries mutually defined their territorial waters and also agreed to allow each other to police the others territorial waters, given their proximity to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz waterway. More recently there has even been talk about directly connecting Iran and Oman via a “high bridge over the Strait of Hormuz.”

After the Shah's fall in 1979 and the ascendance of the present regime both countries still retained relatively cordial ties. Throughout the Iran-Iraq War while Oman wasn't particularly happy with Iran mining the Persian Gulf, it never joined other Gulf Cooperation Council member states who supported the brutal Saddam Hussein regime against the Iranians. In fact it retained diplomatic relations with both parties in that war and even hosted ceasefire talks between the two sides on its soil. While they didn't bear fruit they did nevertheless serve as another example of the role Oman has often played as a mediator between Iran and its rivals.

Qaboos himself has visited Iran in recent years and there are plans to construct a $1 billion natural-gas pipeline between it and Iran. Another clear sign that Oman isn't following suit with Saudi-led efforts to bind together the Arab states of the Persian Gulf against the threat they perceive Iran to pose. The present U.S. administration, it shouldn't be forgotten, has even gone as far as to urge the GCC to set aside internal disputes, such as the diplomatic rift with member-state Qatar this year, by collectively uniting militarily against Iran.

An Emirati academic was quoted by Bloomberg earlier this year aptly illustrating the unique nature of Oman. He maintains that, “Oman isn't enthusiastic about integration and cooperation and I don't think it ever will be. The Sultan has always maintained a sense of mysteriousness about Oman, and they think of themselves as somewhat different from the rest of the GCC.”

Furthermore, in the past when the Clinton administration made failed overtures to the Iranians it did so through the Omanis. However, those overtures didn't bear fruit, largely due to suspicions and allegations within the U.S. intelligence community that Iran had a hand in the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996. A bombing it was suspected was carried out by the Saudi Hezbollah group. The Saudis were hesitant about disclosing any evidence they had about the group in apparent fear it would add credence to any justification of a U.S. campaign. While exploring his options at that time for such a campaign Clinton went as far as declaring that he didn't “want any pissant half-measures.”

Though the Omani channel was subsequently closed it once again signified the importance of Oman as a conduit between the U.S. and Iran. Also, the mistakes the United States seemed to have since learned from their conduct back then was their sole reliance on Iran's president as opposed to the ruling establishment and its Supreme Leader as a whole.

Now ahead of what could very well be deemed a historic deal over Iran's nuclear program U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is set to meet Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif later this month – November 9 and 10 – in order to discuss the negotiations ahead of the set deadline, on November 24, for a final agreement. Again for aforementioned reasons it is no coincidence that Oman is where this meeting will transpire. And it won't be surprising if that country continues to serve such a unique role in relation to such issues for the foreseeable future.


Anonymous said...

Iran-Oman relationship has always been friendly and based on mutual respect. The Shah of Iran really helped Sultan Qaboos against the communists and it was during a time when the West did stop supporting its allies in the region so they fell to popular communist and leftist uprisings. The Shah of Iran realized that situation in Yemen is in favor of the Arabs, he worked hard to strengthen Ethiopian emperor and most importantly he was working on getting Siad Barre of Somalia to change side and join the Western allies. The Shah also realized it was no longer about the Soviet or the Eastern block but that increasingly China was projecting power via its own followers in the region and as such he sent a delegation to China in order to establish relationship with the Chinese. However things were going rapidly in the wrong direction and Iran realized that Oman was the place where projecting some power beyond the borders would save not only Iran but also the rest of the region. It is interesting to also indicate this was one of the major intelligence operations of Iran in order to make an assessment on what to do as Iran realized the Western allies are not going to back Sultan Qaboos. At that Iran put its modern but not tested military machine in action and it showed to be a useful exercise for the coming Iran-Iraq war, especially in the field of asymmetric warfare, heli-borne operations and and long distance bombing sorties. It was only after this war was won and Sultan Qaboos remained in power that the Chinese realized they needed to start building relationship with the Shah in the region, especially as he no longer looked only towards the West.
With regards to Oman, its geo-strategic importance is beyond GCC which is locked mainly in the Persian Gulf. Oman has full control of the Strait of Hormuz, Sea of Oman and most importantly long coast along the Indian Ocean where in case of any potential future war will be the main theater of operations. Besides that it is close to the Gulf of Aden and the horn of Africa and as such, those with good relations with Omanis will have great access to naval and air force bases which can be of vital importance for security of the entire region mentioned above. I think Sultan Qaboos is now looking to balance its West-East relationship as it has realized a strong Iran, an important and strong India plus an ever expanding China can no longer be ignored for cooperation with some tiny nations of GCC (except Saudi) which lack strategic depth and strength. Oman further on has realized that as it is lacking the vast oil and gas resources of the GCC countries and as such it will always be the second class member in that council.

interested party said...

This has been very insightful. Only to clarify and excuse my ignorance. The Sultan Qaboos and the state profess to the Sunni or Shia tradition?

Anonymous said...

The Sultan is a Muslim and he is against sectarian division and hatred. He is of course Sunni but as mentioned earlier he is for unity amongst Muslims and against sectarianism.