Wall Street Journal: Washington has gained a little-known ally in its bid to win crucial Arab support for curbing Iran’s nuclear program: Oman, a small kingdom that is expanding its role on the Middle East’s diplomatic stage.
After Behind-the-Scenes Moves That Fueled Nuclear Accord, Small Kingdom Plays Bigger Role in Courting Arab Support
The Wall Street Journal
By Jay Solomon
Washington has gained a little-known ally in its bid to win crucial Arab support for curbing Iran’s nuclear program: Oman, a small kingdom that is expanding its role on the Middle East’s diplomatic stage.
After playing a behind-the-scenes role in the Obama administration’s diplomatic overture to Iran, the Sultan of Oman and his royal court are working to help sell the deal to skeptical Arab governments, said U.S., Iranian and Arab officials. The Obama administration is pressing to gain the support of its key Mideast allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, for its Iran diplomacy, but is facing strong resistance.
Senior U.S. officials have lauded Oman’s support in the effort. U.S. and Iranian officials said Oman has become a key promoter of talks with Tehran, an initiative that is emerging as the signature foreign-policy move of President Barack Obama’s second term.
November’s interim agreement between world powers and Tehran seeks to curb the most advanced elements of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of Western sanctions.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and some other Gulf states have attacked the U.S. outreach to Iran and doubt it will do enough to deny Tehran a nuclear weapon. They have pressed for additional steps to isolate Tehran.
New details of Oman’s efforts point to a central role for the quiet kingdom, which has long been an anomaly among the largely Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf because of its warm ties to Tehran.
Oman’s ancient capital of Muscat has served as a setting for meetings that have advanced the global diplomacy leading to November’s deal, U.S. and Iranian diplomats said.
Little understood is the extent to which Oman’s monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, and his court’s ministers and economic officials have personally steered the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
Oman has publicly backed Washington’s campaign of rapprochement with Tehran and views the nuclear accord as providing a rare opportunity to lessen tensions between Sunni monarchies and Iran, said Arab and Iranian officials.
Responding to an American request, the 73-year-old Sultan Qaboos has hosted secret meetings between senior American and Iranian officials over the past two years in Muscat, said these officials.
“We believe we are in a historical phase around the world that requires work to achieve peace and stability,” Oman’s minister for foreign affairs, Yousif Bin Alawi, told Arab and Western defense officials at a conference in Bahrain this month. “Based on that, we can achieve sustainable development and progress.”
The Persian Gulf country’s role has evolved beyond the nuclear file as it positions itself as a salesman for the Iran diplomacy, its interests spurred by regional geopolitics and economic self-interest.
Oman’s role in trying to broker a detente between Washington and Tehran offers potential opportunities and pitfalls for the country of four million people, said Iranian and Arab officials.
The sultanate has long sought to build a pipeline bringing Iranian gas to Oman, but the project has been blocked by American sanctions on Tehran. Such a project could proceed if Washington eases its financial pressure, and Oman could benefit from expanded trade between the West and Iran.
Mideast watchers were stunned this month in Bahrain when Omani officials vigorously opposed a Saudi drive to further consolidate the defenses of the six Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf—who make up a body called the Gulf Cooperation Council—in part, to better contain Iran. The Omani officials countered that the countries shouldn’t seek to further militarize the region.
“It was the talk of the conference,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organized the event, known as the Manama Dialogue. “It showed Oman’s willingness to assert an autonomous regional policy, even if it conflicts with its bigger neighbor.”
Meanwhile, the sultan empowered one of his top economic advisers, Salem ben Nasser al Ismaily, to broker the exchanges of Iranians and Americans captured in their opposing government’s dragnets, said officials from those countries.
Mr. Ismaily, head of the Omani investment board, facilitated the return beginning in late 2010 of three American hikers detained by Iranian security forces on charges they were spies.
In April, the businessman, philanthropist and author also helped broker the return of an Iranian scientist, Mojtaba Atarodi, who was arrested in Los Angeles on charges he was purchasing equipment for Tehran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s government had pressed Washington for the return of Mr. Atarodi, a top specialist in the field of microchips, at the highest levels for months, said Iranian and Arab officials.
“Oman has tried to play a positive role and to bridge differences between the two sides,” Iran’s ambassador to France, Ali Ahani, said this month in Monaco. “In the future, anything is possible.”
Oman’s posture in the talks in many ways represents an outgrowth of its long-rooted ties to Tehran. The late Iranian ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sent troops and attack helicopters to Oman in the 1970s to help Sultan Qaboos put down a tribal revolt against his rule. Oman was the sole Persian Gulf state to remain neutral during Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, with the rest providing financial support to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
Tehran and Washington have used Oman to relay messages after diplomatic relations broke down following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Tehran.
Aides to Sultan Qaboos said the British-educated monarch views himself as a mediator between competing sides in the Middle East’s conflicts. He hosted then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 in a bid to forge economic and diplomatic ties.
“He is an idealist in that to a significant extent his policy-making is driven by ethical considerations,” said a senior Arab diplomat who has worked closely with Sultan Qaboos.
The Obama administration heightened Oman’s role as an intermediary in late 2011, in part because of the help it provided in bringing home the three American hikers, said senior U.S. officials.
In December of that year, Secretary of State John Kerry, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held secret talks with Sultan Qaboos and requested that higher-level meetings between Tehran and Washington be held in Muscat. Oman’s proximity to Iran, less than 200 miles across the Persian Gulf, made it a strategic—and out-of-the-way—site.
In July 2012, the first high-level meetings between Iranians and Americans took place during Mr. Obama’s tenure, said senior U.S. and Iranian officials.
The Obama administration dispatched Jake Sullivan, a key adviser to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Puneet Talwar, the top Iran specialist on the National Security Council staff. The meetings were largely focused on seeing if direct talks on the nuclear issue were possible, said U.S. officials briefed on the diplomacy.
That encounter led to an even higher-level meeting in Muscat this March involving Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Majid Ravanchi. U.S. officials said these talks, which included follow-up negotiations in New York and Geneva, helped lay the groundwork for the interim agreement.
Oman over the past year has helped in the return of imprisoned Americans and Iranians.
Mr. Ismaily greeted the last of the three American hikers in Tehran after they were released by Iranian security forces in September 2011. This year, he helped bring home Mr. Atarodi, who had been detained in California for more than a year on charges he had sought to illegally procure equipment for Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran’s government has denied Mr. Atarodi played such a role, and lobbied aggressively to bring home the Sharif University professor, said Arab and Iranian officials.
Obama administration officials, however, said the scientist’s release wasn’t related to international diplomacy and only occurred after the 55-year-old pleaded guilty in a San Francisco court to conspiring to export banned equipment to Tehran. He was sentenced to time served in April and then released, said a senior U.S. official.
Oman also facilitated the return to Tehran this past year of a former Iranian ambassador to Jordan who had been living in London. The U.S. had been seeking to extradite Nosratollah Tajik for more than six years on charges he had sought to export night-vision equipment to the Iranian military. The U.K., however, never honored the American request, said U.S. officials.
Still, many Arab governments have vented at the Obama administration for pursuing secret talks with Iran, and suggested that Washington and Muscat operated behind their backs.
“We’re very disappointed…that they went cheating on us with the Iranians,” said a senior Arab diplomat.