Recent headlines have been dominated by tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.1.“Gulf of Oman tanker attacks: What we know”: BBC Escalations along the Sea of Hormuz have intensified brinkmanship between the two nations. Reports of a U.S. drone being taken down and a near-strike in retaliation have only heightened these dramatic developments.2.“Downed drone was some 34 km (21 miles) from Iran coast: US general”: France24 Yet, straddled between the United States and Iran is a small nation that only gets brief mentions when its corresponding gulf is named. Oman, once again sat between two power houses, is forced to walk a thin line as two major powers raise their aggressive belligerence.
We’ve discussed previously about the Sultanate’s precarious position on the Persian Gulf and how it must play multiple angles in order to maintain its sovereignty. A key part of this strategy has been in maintaining ties with regional powers and international giants. Such a grand strategy was well articulated by careful negotiations with both Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and this long-term goal is encapsulated further by the Sultanate’s present ties with both Iran and the United States. In fact, the Sultanate of Oman has a strong stake in the recent developments, as it acted as the main back channel for U.S.-Iranian negotiations for the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), and thus the JCPOA highlights the culmination of Omani efforts in being a central player between major powers. In order to fully assess the geopolitical strategy of Oman, especially in light of heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions, it is important to examine Oman’s role in the rise and fall of the JCPOA.
The Sultanate Between East and West
Although the JCPOA was formalized in the summer of 2015, much of the groundwork was laid in the years prior. In particular, key developments with Iranian-Omani relations began in the late 2000s. Although the Sultanate was on good terms with Iran in the years following the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1989), reports of Iranian attacks on naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz during the First Gulf War negatively impacted relations between the two.3.Fred Halliday, “The Gulf War and Its Aftermath: First Reflections”: Royal Institute of International Affairs In 2009, Sultan Qaboos was the first foreign leader to visit Iranian President Ahmadinejad following his reelection victory, the first such meeting between the two nations since 1979.4.Scott Neuman, “Tiny Nation Played Pivotal Role in Americans’ Release”: NPR Additional meetings were conducted over the following years, and bilateral arrangements between the two nations were outlined. For instance, throughout 2012-2013, the Sultanate of Oman agreed to represent Iranian interest and affairs in the U.K. and in Canada after diplomatic ties were suspended.5.“Oman to represent Iran’s Canada interests”: Reuters This was followed by a March 2014 deal where the two nations committed to a “25-year agreement to supply 10 Bcm of natural gas per year to Oman, starting by 2017.”6.Simone Tagliapietra, “Iran after the (Potential) Nuclear Deal”: Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) Details provided by Iranian officials estimated the value of this deal to be around $60 billion USD7.“Iran says seals gas export deal with Oman”: Reuters, and additional economic agreements have continued to the present day.8.“Oman, Iran to Boost Investments”: Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs Even more recently was a “joint military drill with Iran”9.Maysam Behravesh, “Oman Hedges Its Bets on Tehran and the Trump Administration”: Atlantic Council conducted on 17 April 2019 just off the coast of Muscat.10. “ایران و عمان رزمایش مشترک دریایی برگزار کردند,” : Radio Farda
While these headlines might portray Oman as a staunch Iranian ally, the Omani relationship with the United States helps provide a key counterweight that nuances this image. As discussed previously, the rise of U.S.-Omani relations can be traced to the need for U.S. strategic positioning during the Iran-Iraq War. In recent times, this relationship has waned from the public perception, but key developments are still occurring in the countries’ bilateral ties. Oman has supported U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has continued to house a U.S. military presence, numbering in the thousands. Military agreements between the two nations have included Omani purchases of U.S. arms, including $51 million USD worth of Javelins and TOWs. More recently, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton conducted official visits to the Sultanate on 9 January 2019. On 24 March 2019, the two countries agreed to a “Strategic Framework Agreement” which expanded American military activity to the ports of al-Duqm and Salalah. Even more intriguing is Oman’s tacit agreement to the Middle East Strategic Alliance, envisioned by U.S. officials as being a NATO-equivalent for Arab nations, with the tacit expectation of countering Iranian influence in the region. Although Oman has continued to rally for more peaceful solutions and discussions to counter perceived Iranian threats, it is evident by this action that the Sultanate continues to weigh its options carefully. Iran objectively poses a geopolitical threat to the tiny Sultanate, and Sultan Qaboos has continually hammered on the necessity of free movement and navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, points that the Iranian regime have continued to hamper.
As a result, Oman maintains strong relationships with both Iran and the United States, and has since attempted to converge these distinct bilateral ties together. Even before the JCPOA, Oman was a crucial player in acting as a back channel for U.S.-Iranian negotiations. In many instances, Oman provided critical assistance in rescuing American hostages detained by Iran. This is most exemplified by the 2010 release of Sarah Shourd, who was arrested by Iranian officials for supposedly illegally entering Iranian borders.11.“‘Like an Animal’: Freed U.S. Hiker Recalls 410 Days in Iran Prison”: NBC Omani assistance and negotiations enabled around $500,000 USD to be paid as bail and resulted in the release of Sarah.12.Uri Friedman, “Oman: The world’s hostage negotiator”: Foreign Policy With this in mind, it becomes evident as to why Oman would be major actor in discussions over the JCPOA. Furthermore, stronger relationships between Iran and the United States would give the Omani regime greater breathing room in the region and would reduce the propensity warfare.
Building the JCPOA
According to some reports, discussions about the JCPOA were conducted as early as May 2009, when an Omani agent brought up the idea of an arrangement between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime.13. David Ignatius, “The Omani ‘back channel’ to Iran and the secrecy surrounding the nuclear deal”: Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs According to former U.S. Ambassador to Oman (2009-2012) Richard Schmierer, it was the Omanis who “quietly began to explore the possibility of facilitating a dialogue between Iran and the West… [on] the nuclear issue.”14.Richard Schmierer, “The Sultanate of Oman and the Iran Nuclear Deal”: MEPC These clandestine discussions entered a new dynamic in 2012, when the Omani Sultan approached then-senator John Kerry “with an offer to foster friendly relations between the United States and Iran.”15.Wendy Sherman, “How We Got the Iran Nuclear Deal and Why We’ll Miss It”: Foreign Affairs In response, John Kerry would conduct a series of visits to Oman in order to probe this potential further.16.Ibid Throughout March 2013, the U.S. sent several officials to Muscat to meet Iranian contacts for further negotiations.17.Arshad Mohammed and Parisa Hafezi, “U.S., Iran held secret talks on March to nuclear deal”: Reuters The election of President Hassan Rouhani later that year had the potential of complicating these discussions. According to former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Salehi, Rouhani was unaware of these secret negotiations and was shocked to learn of them.18.Golanz Esfandiari, “Senior Iranian Official Reveals Details About Secret Talks With U.S.”: Radio Free Europe However, it became apparent that Rouhani was eager to engage in a dialogue with the United States in order to ease economic issues in Iran and some commentators argued that “Rouhani’s election… lent new energy to the back-channel talks.”19.Wendy Sherman, “How We Got the Iran Nuclear Deal and Why We’ll Miss It”: Foreign Affairs Oman continued to maintain correspondence between the United States and Iran throughout 201420.Shohini Gupta, “Oman: The Unsung Hero of the Iranian Nuclear Deal”: Foreign Policy Journal and even continued to play a role in negotiations up until the adoption of the JCPOA on 14 July 2015.21.“Obama calls Oman leader to discuss Iran nuclear deal: White House,” Yahoo News
The adoption of the Iran Nuclear Deal was a watershed mark for Oman’s foreign policy. Omani Foreign Minister Badr al-Busaidi called the adoption a “historic win-win,”22.Badr al-Busaidi: Twitterand many welcomed the possibility of increased trade relations with Iran after sanctions were lifted.23.Hussein Ibish, “For Gulf Countries, Iran’s Regional Behavior Overshadows Nuclear Deal”: The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington Of course, many other Arab states were less than pleased with the deal, and members within the GCC were suspicious towards Oman’s positive remarks.24.Krishnadev Calamur, “In The Middle East, Iran Deal Called ‘Bad Mistake,’ ‘Great Victory’”: NPR However, by convincing the U.S. and Iran to embark on a path towards peace, Oman was able to secure its geopolitical goals. With the JCPOA, it would be able to ensure the safe passage of travel throughout the Strait of Hormuz and would lessen the risk of a war that would force the Omanis to pick a side.25.John D. Anthony, “Oman: Girding and Guarding the Gulf,” National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations It was, by all considerations, a crown achievement in Oman’s grand strategy.
That is, until the United States pulled out of the JCPOA just a few years later.26.“Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned,” The New York Times With the U.S. withdrawing, Omani leadership was forced to once again navigate rough waters. Officials from Muscat pushed back rhetorically but remained relatively subdued. A statement from the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 9 May 2018 declared that:27.“Oman will make efforts for peace, stability in the region”: Times of Oman
The Sultanate has followed the developments of the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 Group in 2015, which was approved by a UN Security Council Resolution. The Sultanate of Oman, which has cooperation and friendly relations with both the United States of America (USA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran, will continue following up such developments and make every possible and available efforts to maintain stability and security in the region. The Sultanate believes that the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran are interested in achieving peace and stability in the region and that confrontation does not service the interests of either parties.
The Omani regime recognized that the collapse of the JCPOA between Iran and the U.S. would heighten tension and instability. As a result, the Sultanate continued its trademark policy of pragmatic bilateral agreements with both the U.S. and Iran. As noted above, this has resulted in key meetings with officials on both sides and increased security arrangements. In addition, Oman has participated in several summits in order to further develop its options. On 30 May 2019, just two weeks before the tanker attacks on the Persian Gulf, Oman sent a delegation to Mecca focused on countering Iranian interests.28.“Arab leaders condemn Iran’s Gulf actions, tell regime to stop funding terror”: Arab News Without a binding agent to maintain peace, Oman must once again pursue a nuanced foreign policy built on layers of bilateral arrangements and pivoting options.
The Gulf of Oman and the Gulf in Oman
Recent escalation in the Persian Gulf should be alarming to the Omani regime and to its populace. Any increase in the possibility of war between the United States and Iran poses an existential threat to the contemporary frameworks the Omani Sultanate have developed and pursued. A thousand U.S. troops have already been sent to augment the nation’s military presence in the region, and it is safe to assume that some of these forces will be deployed in the new ports (al-Duqm and Salalah) allotted by the Omani government.29.Nicole Gaouette, “US sending 1,000 additional troops to Middle East amid Iran tensions”: CNN Despite this, little can be found as to the stances or perspectives Omani officials and regime members may have. It is certain that the escalation in tensions following the tanker attacks on 13 June 2019 spooked the regime. Just days after the attack, the Royal Oman Police announced that:30.“Joint security exercise by Omani forces on Tuesday”: Times of Oman
various military and security forces will take part in a joint exercise scheduled for Tuesday [18 June 2018] to better coordinate response and ensure readiness to deal with emergency situations.”
Just one day after this drill, Omani military leadership met with U.S. Lt. General Carl Mundy, although the exact nature of this meeting is unclear.31.“RAFO commander receives top US military official” Times of Oman Beyond these scant details, little else has been offered by Omani officials. Twitter accounts like that of Foreign Minister Badr al-Busaidi are silent, and a cursory glance at Omani-based news outlets like the Muscat Daily and the Times of Oman offer virtually nothing about the ongoing situation.
What can be found is vague and tight-lipped. In a statement from 22 June 2019, the Omani Public Authority for Civil Aviation made no direct mention to the U.S., Iran, or the ongoing conflict, and instead simply stated:32.“Oman airspace safe, being monitored: PACA”: Times of Oman
The Air Traffic Emergency Management Team at the Authority is following developments on air traffic in the Omani airspace, which is proceeding normally in the light of events affecting some flight routes to the north… The Authority is ready to take all measures to ensure the safety of air traffic in the Omani airspace.
As U.S.-Iranian tensions increase the risk of war and destabilization, Oman has attempted to maintain a sense of neutrality. By maintaining silence on the matter, Oman can continue to build on its distinct bilateral ties between the two nations. Although the JCPOA was a cornerstone of Omani foreign policy, Oman continues to steer ahead despite its failure. While few can accurately predict the trajectory of conflict in the Strait of Hormuz, it is clear that Oman’s foreign policy will continue to necessitate a flexible and internationalist path. An interesting dimension in this regard is the Omani relationship with Israel, a nation that on a surface level assessment, it should have no dealings with. Oman’s key role in developing the JCPOA only further complicates this. However, a crucial axis in Oman’s foreign policy has been in maintaining a tacit relationship with Israel, and in the next and final chapter, we’ll assess the historical track of the bilateral relationship between these two nations.