A diplomatic bridge: Oman's relations with Iran

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10 min read
09 January, 2023
Analysis: Irrespective of how tensions over Iran's nuclear program and foreign policy play out in 2023, Muscat will continue balancing its relationships with regional actors while seeking to promote greater stability in the Middle East.

Perched on the Arabian Peninsula’s south-eastern corner, the Sultanate of Oman conducts a moderate, balanced, and diplomatic foreign policy.

As a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a long-time friend of Iran, with a historically deep relationship with the United Kingdom, Oman has served a stabilising role in the Middle East since Sultan Qaboos ascended to the throne in 1970.

By avoiding impulsive moves and temptations to conform to regional trends, the Sultanate uniquely and maturely approaches international affairs.

Omani foreign policy is largely geared toward securing peace and prosperity within the country’s own borders. Muscat realises that this outcome is most realistic when stability and security exist across the wider region, which helps explain why the Sultanate has spent decades pursuing a friends-of-all foreign policy aimed at ensuring that Oman does not make enemies.

Sharing maritime or land borders with Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with the rest of the GCC and Iraq not too far afield, Omani policymakers, to their credit, have managed to keep Muscat on positive terms with all states in this difficult neighbourhood.

"Since Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, the Omanis have generally sought to achieve neutral positions vis-à-vis regional and international conflicts"

The importance of 'active' neutrality

Since Qaboos came to power in 1970, the Omanis have generally sought to achieve neutral positions vis-à-vis regional and international conflicts. The Sultanate’s geopolitical neutrality is active, rather than passive, meaning that Oman has long served as a diplomatic bridge between regional and international actors.

There are many examples in modern history of Oman playing this bridging role between various Arab states. Although Muscat supported the US-led international military coalition’s campaign to liberate Kuwait in 1991, Oman broke from other GCC states after the war by supporting Iraq’s rehabilitation and return to the Arab region’s diplomatic fold.

Oman’s then-Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi said the crippling sanctions against Iraq amounted to a “slow-paced death” and called on the international community “to soften the burden on women, children, the elderly, and the sick”.

Oman joined Kuwait in putting significant diplomatic energy into bringing the UAE- and Saudi-led 2017-21 blockade of Qatar to an end. Today, Oman seeks to help the Yemeni conflict’s actors resolve their differences through a political settlement. The Sultanate is also the ‘chief architect’ of Arab normalisation with Syria just as Muscat similarly advocated for ending Egypt’s isolation in the Arab world following the 1979 Camp David Accords.

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Oman’s pragmatic and cordial relationship with Iran has been important to the Sultanate’s balanced position in the region. Tensions between Iran and various Arab and Western states could be somewhat alleviated through more dialogue according to Omani policymakers, who always welcome opportunities to facilitate such talks in a neutral location.

Muscat’s active neutrality has also served to facilitate dialogue and negotiations between post-1979 Iran and various Arab and Western states too, such as Egypt, Iraq, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Oman has maintained this approach to foreign policy under Sultan Haitham’s leadership, representing continuity from the Qaboos era.

Omanis see Iran as a neighbour that will never go away and Muscat’s interests in good relations with Iran have nothing to do with the nature of the Iranian government. As long as Iran remains on the map, Oman will always want to find ways to live in harmony with its Persian neighbour across the Strait of Hormuz even when disagreeing with aspects of Tehran’s regional conduct and the regime’s ideology.

A view among many Omanis is that some Iran-related problems in the world today stem from certain regional and global actors lacking respect for Iran, a country which represents an ancient civilisation. Centuries-old cultural, familial, and trade ties between Omanis and Persians/Iranians factor into Muscat’s perspective on relations with Tehran in the contemporary period.   

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Oman has served a stabilising role in the Middle East since Sultan Qaboos ascended to the throne in 1970. [Getty]

With a unique perspective, Muscat has long viewed Iran as critical to stability and security in the Middle East. One year after Qaboos ascended to the throne, he visited the Shah of Iran for celebrations commemorating the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire. Despite opposing Iran’s 1971 takeover of three Persian Gulf islands (Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs), which Arab states recognise as Emirati territory, Qaboos believed that Iran’s monarch was the most powerful regional actor.

New to the throne, Oman’s ruler sought the Shah’s help in fighting Marxist insurgents in the Sultanate’s Dhofar Governorate amid a conflict which erupted during the previous decade. Seeing the insurgents in Dhofar as “savages” who also threatened Iran, the Shah agreed to lend Tehran’s support to Qaboos.

Ultimately, Iran’s military assistance greatly contributed to the Omani government’s victory years later, also marking a major triumph for anti-Communist states in the Middle East such as Iran and Saudi Arabia which feared Soviet influence in southern Arabia.

"The Sultanate's geopolitical neutrality is active, rather than passive, meaning that Oman has long served as a diplomatic bridge between regional and international actors"

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, Oman concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolution was an internal development that Muscat had no means to influence, let alone prevent. Muscat decided to make the most of the situation and not allow the Islamic Republic’s formation and consolidation of power to inflict serious harm on Omani-Iranian relations.

Although during the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) Oman took a slightly more pro-Baghdad posture by covertly dealing with the Iraqis against Iran, Muscat soon positioned itself neutrally with a pro-peace stance which grew out of Qaboos’ recognition that both Iran and Iraq could inflict massive harm on Oman.

Throughout that eight-year conflict, Oman was the only neutral GCC member, which earned Oman much goodwill among Iranians with Qaboos establishing himself as an Arab leader whom officials in Tehran could trust despite his closeness to London and Washington.

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Omani diplomacy in the current period

From the 2010-15 period, Oman was the main diplomatic bridge between the West and Iran. Oman being the country where US and Iranian officials began secret nuclear talks during Barak Obama’s first term, which later culminated in the historic 2015 passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), illustrated the effectiveness of the Sultanate as a backchannel to Iran.

That bridging role that Oman played between the US and Iran during those years also fuelled a degree of tension between Muscat on one side and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on the other, with Emirati and Saudi officials believing that it was inappropriate for an individual GCC state to host such talks without first consulting the other five.

Yet, throughout Joe Biden’s presidency, which since 2021 has witnessed stalled efforts to revive the JCPOA, European states have functioned as the primary backchannel between Washington and Tehran on the nuclear file. In effect, this has somewhat decreased the significance of Oman’s bridging role.

Nonetheless, the frequent visits paid by high-ranking Iranian officials to Muscat underscore how Tehran trusts Oman far more than any European country to be a credible and effective backchannel. One of the factors pertains to Muscat’s refusal to take actions that the Islamic Republic views as a form of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs.

A diplomatic bridge: Oman's relations with Iran
The Omani government's official line is that the upheaval in Iran is a domestic issue that does not concern the Sultanate’s policymakers. [Getty]

In contrast to Western powers, which have reacted to Mahsa Amini’s death in mid-September and the months-long crackdown on protestors by increasing sanctions on Tehran while JCPOA negotiations collapse in acrimony, Oman is not changing its relationship with Iran at a state-to-state level.

Most policymakers in the Sultanate assume that Iran is not on the brink of a revolution and that the Islamic Republic will weather the ongoing protests, giving Oman reason to look to its relationship with Iran in a long-term manner and avoid actions now that could add to the Tehran regime’s sense of insecurity.

Put simply, Oman views its non-interference foreign policy doctrine as critical to ensuring that the Sultanate has no enemies and is not perceived as a threatening actor by any foreign government. Sharing waterways with Iran as well as many common interests, Oman wants to ensure that there is no hostility between Muscat and Tehran.

Oman being one of only eight countries to vote against kicking Iran off the Commission on the Status of Women on 14 December illustrated this non-interference approach. Although on a personal level many Omanis have negative opinions of Iran’s hijab laws and their enforcement by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police”, the Omani government’s official line is that the upheaval in Iran is a domestic issue that does not concern the Sultanate’s policymakers.

"Put simply, Oman views its non-interference foreign policy doctrine as critical to ensuring that the Sultanate has no enemies and is not perceived as a threatening actor"

When the Iran nuclear deal was signed and implemented in 2015/16, Muscat was optimistic about the accord serving as a stabilising factor as well as the prospects for more prosperity and regional economic integration with the lifting of sanctions. Having invested years of hard work into efforts which led to the JCPOA’s passage, it was understandable how the Trump administration’s decision to trash the multilateral accord in May 2018 did not please the Omani leadership.

Officials in Muscat were challenged to see why the White House made that unilateral move and what Trump’s team realistically expected to have come after the JCPOA which could have been any better from the standpoint of Washington’s interests. As a close US partner, Oman did not publicly criticise the Trump administration for pulling out of the accord. Yet as officials in Muscat saw the situation, the bold move was an extremely negative development that left Oman and other countries less insecure.

Today, Omani officials point to Iran’s further enrichment of uranium since the US unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and question how any observer could argue that “maximum pressure” was successful. At the same time, the view of Oman’s government is that sanctions on Iran have hurt ordinary citizens without making life too difficult for regime officials.

Nonetheless, at this juncture, Omani officials are pragmatic about the JCPOA and realise that there is no reason to be optimistic about the 2015 deal being restored at any time in the foreseeable future. In Muscat, there is unease about the state of US-Iran relations as nuclear brinkmanship continues without the JCPOA serving to freeze Tehran’s nuclear activities.

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Against this backdrop of nuclear escalation, there are serious risks of internal unrest in Iran further internationalising and taking on more regional dimensions. With the government in Tehran wanting to distract its citizens from domestic crises and shift attention toward the Islamic Republic’s traditional adversaries, there is reason to fear that in 2023 the Iranians will lash out in the region to achieve this goal. Under such circumstances, the security of all GCC states, including Oman, will face dangerous threats.

With tension between the Islamic Republic and states which are confrontational toward Tehran heightening, authorities in the Sultanate worry about violent incidents occurring in the Strait of Hormuz or near the Omani coastline. Such episodes could both threaten their own country’s security and raise the risks of a grander escalation throughout the wider region.

Muscat continues advocating for more dialogue and diplomatic engagement between various states with the aim of lowering temperatures in the Gulf and beyond. By frequently welcoming high-ranking Iranian delegations to Muscat for discussions, Omani policymakers can continue facilitating meetings and relaying messages between Tehran and a host of actors that might not be willing to directly engage Iranian officials.

Decades-old hostilities between Iran on one side and the West and Israel on the other are not on the verge of easing. Throughout 2023, there is a risk of tensions spiralling out of control as Iran’s nuclear activities continue advancing with Tehran’s ballistic missile and drone capabilities improving.

Oman has an important role to play as a dovish actor in the Gulf, facilitating dialogue and pushing for confidence-building measures that have the potential to offset escalations.

Irrespective of how tensions over the Iranian nuclear program and non-nuclear aspects of Tehran’s foreign policy play out in 2023, Muscat will continue balancing its relationships with regional actors while seeking to make positive differences in terms of promoting greater stability in the Middle East and keeping the Gulf a nuclear weapons-free part of the world.   

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero