The Omani Road to Iran

As speculation grows about a military strike against Iran, does Oman offer a diplomatic alternative for influence?

The Sultanate of Oman had a rocky start to the year. In February, inspired by the still nascent Arab Spring, hundreds of disenchanted Omanis took to the streets to protest unfair wages and a lack of job opportunities.  Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said moved quickly, promising 50,000 government jobs and $2.6 billion to promote new work opportunities in the private sector.

The results, though, have been mixed – autumn elections for a Shura advisory council have theoretically reduced the Sultan’s absolute power, but the real effects of this move remain questionable.

However, despite its domestic warts, Oman remains an important interlocutor between the United States and Iran. Unlike its neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Oman has maintained very good relations with both Iran and the United States. The Iranian relationship was solidified by Oman’s neutrality during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and its subsequent efforts aimed at concluding the conflict through the United Nations. Since then, Oman’s ties with Iran have blossomed, save a few hiccups on the way.

This relationship is by far the strongest link Iran has to the Gulf Cooperation Council states and provides a valuable opening for the United States. Last month, Sultan Qaboos hosted U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Muscat to discuss a host of Iranian issues, including the recent alleged plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. However, the visit was also a courtesy extended to Oman in thanks of Sultan Qaboos efforts to free the remaining two U.S. hikers from imprisonment in Iran. The Omani leader reportedly paid $1.5 million in bail to free the hikers, including Sarah Shroud, who was released last year.

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During Clinton’s visit to Oman, the State Department released a statement indicating that the United States “expects that (the) Omanis would use their relationship with Iran, as they have in the past, to help the Iranians understand the implications of what they’re doing.” Oman remains an undervalued card for the U.S. in dealing with a truculent regime in Iran.

Last year, Turkey – a state with much more geopolitical influence – seemed to covet the role of interlocutor and peacemaker. However, Ankara’s calculations are changing in light of the Arab Spring, forcing it to abandon its doctrine of “friends on all borders.” The Turkey-Syria relationship has deteriorated due to Damascus’s brutal repression of protests across the country. The relationship with Iran has not descended as precipitously, yet, but Turkey has forewarned Iran that it won’t support police states in the region.

This brings us back to Oman as the Middle East’s new interlocutor. Thus far, it remains questionable whether Oman will be able to effect Tehran’s calculations. Iranian intransigence is a product of its vulnerable security environment and deep seated suspicion of the West’s involvement in the region. While no single state or organization alone can soothe these concerns and realities, Oman remains best placed to keep the backdoor open to ensure that there are some small victories.