Today, the Sultanate of Oman is seen by many as a provider of peace and aid to much of the Middle East. The country’s actions in the ongoing Yemen Civil War and its neutral positioning in the broader Middle Eastern “Cold War” are key aspects of the nation’s foreign policy. However, these actions are in line with a long-standing strategy designed at ensuring Omani security in world with strong regional neighbors, forcing it to use soft power to play many sides on the international stage. Through its outward emphasis on human rights and peace at the United Nations and other bodies, Oman has been able to align itself with major western powers and secure political security against its regional threats. In this section, we will assess the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1989 and how Oman, a country within the crossfires, managed to cement a foreign policy based on
the flexibility of multiple bilateral relations and international ties.
The Outbreak of the War and the Formation of the GCC
The Iran-Iraq War broke out on 22 September 1980, with ten Iranian air bases hit and Iraqi divisions penetrating the oil-rich territories of Khuzestan.1.Dilip Hiro, “The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict”: Routledge, 40-41 A rising Iraq under Saddam Hussein was proving to be a security concern for states like Libya and Syria, who sided with Iran. On the other hand, Iraq received overt support from Egypt and Jordan.2.Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Westview Press, 141. Of particular note were the actions of the Gulf states, who for the most part attempted to remain publicly neutral, though Saudi Arabia and Kuwait both made overtures to the side of Saddam Hussein.
Oman was caught in the crossfire in one of the most vulnerable positions. Oman’s location on the Persian Gulf made it susceptible to attacks from either side, and its tacit control of the Strait of Hormuz meant it had a geographical significance to both countries. This sense of threat was exacerbated by the Sultanate’s relatively small troop count, with the Royal Army of Oman boasting 35,000 men at this time.3.Marc O’Reilly, “Omanibalancing: Oman Confronts an Uncertain Future”. Middle East Journal, Vol. 52, No. 1 Recognising these issues, Oman pushed hard for a security network that would connect the nations of the Gulf into a single entity and placed itself in the center of directing efforts toward unified economic and security coordination.4.“Persian Gulf Studies” Department of the Army, 314 To further highlight Oman’s direct role in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) formation, a final preparational meeting was held in Muscat just weeks before the organisation’s official establishment on 25 May 1981.5.John Duke Anthony, “Oman: Girding and Guarding the Gulf”. National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Although an objectively weaker member, Omani activity did not reflect the whims of its stronger neighbors. At the inaugural meeting of the GCC, Qaboos fought to secure a strong position for Oman, resulting in the position of Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs ending up in Omani hands.6.John Duke Anthony, “Oman: Girding and Guarding the Gulf”. National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Conversely, Omani policy began to diverge from that of other GCC members. While Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE “maintained strict official silence on the Iranian-Iraqi hostilities,” Omani policy was clearly uttered and chiefly focused on enforcing the sanctity of the Strait of Hormuz for international shipping.7.Dilip Hiro, “The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict”: Routledge, 77-78
Oman’s benign attitude was greatly contrasted however by its actions during the earliest days of the Iran-Iraq War. The complex web of alliances and regional ties makes any assessment of this period difficult. However, an examination of Omani ties on distinct, bilateral levels helps illustrate the pragmatic, if ever shifting nature of the country’s international policies.
War with the Iraqis
While Omani-Iraqi relations officially began in 1976 with the opening of embassies, one of the foremost events in their bilateral history can be traced to February 1979, when the Pahlavi regime collapsed in Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as Supreme Leader of the Iranian Republic.8.“Envoy speak: Oman-Iraq relations flourish in new era” : Times of Oman Saddam Hussein, Vice President of Iraq at the time, recognised the security threat presented in the new Iranian Republic, and found the need for regional partnerships in order to stem the religious and revolutionary fervor of Iran.9.“Iraq Timeline” : National Defense University Press High ranking envoys from Baghdad were quickly sent to many states in the Arab Gulf, including Oman.10.“Tilting Toward Baghdad: Gulf States’ Aid to Iraq”, a brief by the Central Intelligence Agency This was shortly followed by the signing of a security pact between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in that same month.11.Joseph Kostiner, Conflict and Cooperation in the Gulf Region, 58: Springer VS Saddam then proposed a pan-Arab charter that was approved by every Gulf state save for Oman.12.Iraq’s Pan-Arab Charter”, a brief by the Central Intelligence Agency13.Gerd Nonneman, “The Gulf States and the Iran-Iraq War: Pattern Shifts and Continuities” in Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War, 173: Palgrave Macmillan Such positioning highlighted Oman’s desire for flexibility in reaction to the growing changes in the region. A May 1980 delegation led by Omani Foreign Minister Qais al-Zawiwi resulted in the country expressing support for the Iraqi National Charter, a clear desire in increasing bilateral cooperation, and a hope of removing “any misunderstandings that might have arisen as a result of certain political opinions.” These actions contrasted sharply with neighboring Gulf states, who seemed eager to jump into full relations with Iraq.
This warming of ties would result in direct action. Despite seemingly normalised relations with Iran, Omani leadership was was wary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary focus, and coordinated with Saddam Hussein on surprise air assaults against Iranian naval bases and the city of Bandar Abbas.14.Kambiz Fattahi, “The Oman Scare: The Untold Story of Oman’s ‘Almost Military Strike’ on Iran”. Wilson Center.15.Bernard Gwertzman, “ U.S. Said to Act to Prevent Attack by Iraq From Oman; Zia Not Optimistic on End to War U.S. Accused of Collusion Saudis Feared Iranian Attack Tension in Washington Noted”: New York Times 16.Ahmet Uysal, “What is Unique About the Omani-Iranian Relations”. Iram Center Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara British intelligence cables reveal that covert meetings between Iraq and Oman were conducted on September 25, 1980.17.“Iran-Iraq War: No.10 record of telephone conversation (MT-Carrington)”, accessed from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation On 27 September, a mere five days after Iraq invaded Iran, Sultan Qaboos informed the U.S. and U.K. that it would be engaging Iran.18.Kambiz Fattahi, “The Oman Scare: The Untold Story of Oman’s ‘Almost Military Strike’ on Iran”. Wilson Center. When asked to justify the raid by British officials, Omani rhetoric once again highlighted the country’s chief strategic concern, with al-Zawiwi claiming “the operation would help guarantee free passage” of the Strait of Hormuz. 19.“Iran-Iraq War: No.10 record of telephone conversation (MT-Carrington)”, accessed from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation However, delays on the Iraqi side coupled with U.S. and U.K. negotiations ultimately led to Oman dropping the potential strike.20. Kambiz Fattahi, “The Oman Scare: The Untold Story of Oman’s ‘Almost Military Strike’ on Iran”. Wilson Center.21.“Iran-Iraq War: No.10 record of telephone conversation (MT-Carrington)”, accessed from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation
Throughout the course of the war, Oman continued to cooperate with the Iraqi government. After realizing the relative strength and prowess of the Iranian Air Force, Saddam Hussein defensively moved most of his aircraft out of Iranian reach and into other Arab states, including Oman.22.“Iraq Said to Send Planes to Foreign Havens” : New York Times23.Dilip Hiro, “The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict”: Routledge, 40 Although political relations remained relatively positive in the aftermath, there would no longer be any significant level of military or covert cooperation between the two countries. Without having made any significant commitments to Iraq, Oman garnered positive relations with Saddam while staying out of Iraqi crossfire. Such sentiments were echoed in a memorandum dated to 10 October 1980 from U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, who noted:
“Oman has made out well diplomatically. It has garnered Iraq’s favor without having to involve itself in the conflict. All Iraqi aircraft which were to strike Bandar Abbas from Oman have been withdrawn. The U.S.-Oman access agreement and the accompanying letter on Omani security have given Qaboos the confidence he needs to be able to remain uninvolved. Oman is concerned with Iranian intentions and has asked the U.S. for a statement of our intentions, should Oman become involved in the war.”24.Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Weekly Report #157”: Central Intelligence Agency
Peace with Iran
Despite Omani-Iraqi dealings, much of Oman’s foreign policy with Iran was marked by a public sense of neutrality. This would evolve into a more peace-focused attitude, with Oman slowly moving forward as a mediator of conflict between the two nations. Oman-Iran relations before 1979 were overwhelmingly positive, with Mohammed Reza Shah providing troops to Oman during its insurgency in the 1970s.25.Bruce Riedel, “Omani Sultan Returns Home”. Brookings Institute publication Although Qaboos feared Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-establishment assertions, he realised that Iran posed significant threats to the Strait of Hormuz and was conscious of the significant Shiite population living in Oman.26.Marc O’Reilly, “Omanibalancing: Oman Confronts an Uncertain Future”. Middle East Journal, Vol. 52, No. 1 These factors meant that Oman would have to navigate a precarious cliff, as access to the crucial Strait was at risk. In order to maneuver with care, Oman would engage in proactive foreign policy with the upstart Iranian republic. These sentiments were noticed by U.S. officials stationed in Muscat. David Dunford, former ambassador to Oman, revealed that the course of the Iran-Iraq War had not stopped “an active relationship” with Iran.27.David Dunford, “The U.S. and Oman: An Enduring Partnership”. Middle East Institute, Vol. 12, No.1
These murky waters would come into play as Oman prepared for its joint strike with Iraq. Significant consideration was placed on the potential Iranian reaction should the strike fail, but Omani leadership deemed these fears to be small compared to the gains of a fully free Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, Oman based this decision on strong Iraqi advances into Iranian territory, and confidence was further bolstered by a recent military access deal with the United States.28.Marc O’Reilly, “Omanibalancing: Oman Confronts an Uncertain Future”. Middle East Journal, Vol. 52, No. 1 In an effort at dissuading the attack, a British official made a key observation to al-Zawiwi, noting that “Oman would live with any future Iranian regime and that [Iran], whatever complexion it might take, could well harbour a grudge against Omani participation in this adventure.”29.“Iran-Iraq War: No.10 record of telephone conversation (MT-Carrington)”, accessed from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation
It is unknown if these words changed Omani policy moving forward, or if these ideas were already being considered. As war continued to rage on, Omani policy shifted away from its belligerent nature and began urging the warring parties to negotiate. Starting in 1985, Omani officials began to conduct relatively warm communications with Iranian counterparts.30.“Iranian Intentions in the Persian Gulf”, briefing by the Central Intelligence Agency These dealings coalesced further, as exemplified by the visit of Omani Minister of State Yusuf bin Alawi, who visited in May of 1987 to reach “an agreement to develop jointly a gasfield in the Strait of Hormuz and to establish a communication link.”31.Ibid. This same report noted that Omani reconciliation with Iran arose from a belief that “improved relations with Tehran [would] deter Iranian aggression.”32.Ibid. Such policy solidified into secret cease-fire discussions held in Muscat and although formal agreements were never signed, mistrust between Iran and Iraq decreased as a result. Oman maintained these sentiments by rallying hard for peace and for restored relations with Iran at the United Nations, which would eventually coalesce into UN Security Council Resolution 598, ceasing all hostilities in the Iran-Iraq conflict.33.“Security Council Demands a Truce in Iran-Iraq War” : New York Times34.“Security Council Resolution 598: Iraq-Islamic Republic of Iran” from the archives of the United Nations Peacemaker In the immediate aftermath, Oman maintained its warm relations by working with the U.K. and Saudi Arabia in normalising relations with Iran.35.“Oman warns on military confrontation with Iran” : ReutersSuch actions laid the foundation for similar ventures, with Oman later playing a key role in establishing the JCPOA between Iran, the European Union, and the United States.
The United States Overture
In conjunction with efforts in currying favor from both Iran and Iraq, Oman made the critical decision to build relations with the U.S.. Previously, Oman worked with British military forces for the training of local forces.36.“Loan service personnel for Oman” : British National Archives However, Soviet influence in the Dhofar Rebellion convinced Sultan Qaboos that greater ties with the United States would be critical in maintaining sovereignty.37.Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Westview Press, 338-339.38.Alexander Schade, “Counterinsurgency Strategy in the Dhofar Rebellion”. Small Wars Journal The emergence of conflict between Iran and Iraq would serve as the right junction for Sultan Qaboos to expedite this goal.
As war erupted between Iran and Iraq, Oman quickly became aware that its playing of both sides was not the only strategy it could rely on. Budding U.S.-Omani relations would prove to be the perfect opportunity for increased security deals.39.“The United States and the Sultanate of Oman: Two Centuries of Friendship” : U.S. Embassy in Oman These developments ultimately coalesced into a facilities access agreement established in 1980, enabling U.S. military forces to operate via Omani bases.
The continuation of fighting correlated with increasing numbers of American personnel.40.Ibid. By 1983, the American presence increased to 940,000 individuals, and Sultan Qaboos began to make several visits to Washington D.C.41.“U.S. Interest in Oman” : New York Times42.“ NSPG Meeting on Iran-Iraq War Thursday, December 22”: Central Intelligence Agency Conversely, Vice President George H.W. Bush made visits to Oman in 1984 and 1986.43.Briefing by the U.S. Department of State. Beyond the placement of American forces acting as a deterrent, the security agreement also came with substantial benefits. It was reported that between 1981-1983, more than $165 million USD was sent to Oman as military aid, and various American companies began to operate in Oman to further develop its oil fields.44.Briefing by the U.S. Department of State. These bilateral movements were key, as Oman became one of the first Gulf nations to have an openly strong relationship with the United States, as while relations between the U.S. and other Arab states were positive, they did not have the same level of martial coordination that was seen between Muscat and Washington D.C.45.“U.S. is Said to Develop Oman as its Major Ally in the Gulf” : New York Times
As the Strait of Hormuz became more militarised and compromised by naval mines, Oman increased its overtures towards the United States and consequently saw increased numbers of American troops.46.Sabahat Khan, “Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations”. Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis February 1984 saw substantial increases in oil tankers being attacked by both Iran and Iraq. Both sides attempted “a campaign of economic attrition and political intimidation,” but only worked to give credence towards Qaboos’s fears and resulted in the Sultan looking towards the U.S. and other international partners for assistance.47.Sabahat Khan, “Iranian Mining of the Strait of Hormuz – Plausibility and Key Considerations”. Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis48.John Haldane, “Oman: In the World’s Spotlight”, publication from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs49.UNGA 42nd Session, “Summary of the 19th Meeting”, United Nations Archives
Ultimately, it became clear by the end of the war that Oman-U.S. ties would become paramount in maintaining the country’s security. By allying itself with a major power like the United States, Oman was able to gain breathing room in the conflict and become emboldened in its political actions. While the relationship strengthened the U.S. hegemony, it came with military aid, monetary assistance, and a greater connection to the international community. Most significant of all was assurance towards Omani autonomy from its regional neighbors, as direct aid by the U.S. meant Oman would not have to worry about threats so as long as this bilateral relationship was maintained.
War’s End: Concluding Remarks
If one major trend is derived from the Iran-Iraq War, it is the strengthening of Oman’s position on the international stage. Though a weak state, Oman was able to use soft power and geographical considerations in bilateral agreements with the United States and international organizations like the GCC and United Nations. By constantly emphasising the desires of peace and for free movement within the Strait of Hormuz, most states were able to agree with the Sultan’s sentiments without negative repercussions. Peace and trade are two universally accepted ideas expressed by the international community, and Oman, throughout the course of the war, continued to harp on these ideas as pillars of its own international identity. As a result, Oman gained considerable ties to the west and significant positive relations with its neighbors.
Oman is a country that recognizes its place in the world. By playing multiple angles throughout the Iran-Iraq War, Oman was able to influence the currents of its regional diplomacy by the most tacit of agreements. This policy of strength by international ties can be must succinctly heard in the words of the Sultan himself. Given during a visit to U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983, Qaboos bin Said solemnly declares:
“We are under no illusions. We realize that the important geopolitical position we occupy at the mouth of the gulf and the unstable situation that exists in the region make it imperative that we develop our country and its defenses to the maximum of our ability. This we are doing and shall continue to do. We do not expect others to shoulder these burdens for us. We fight our own battles. But we realize that in the present state of the world, no country can act in isolation, that a concerted effort must be made by the free world if freedom itself is not to be extinguished. We, therefore, look to our friends for their support, just as we offer ours to them in the trials and dangers that jointly face us.”50.“Toasts of the President and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman at the State Dinner” : Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum