Washington has gained a little-known ally in its bid to win crucial Arab support for curbing Iran’s nuclear programme: Oman, a small country 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 sceptical Arab governments, said US, Iranian and Arab officials.
The Obama administration is pressing to gain the support of its key Middle Eastern allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, for its Iran diplomacy, but is facing strong resistance. Senior US officials have lauded Oman’s support in the effort. US 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 programme in exchange for an easing of Western sanctions.Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and some other Gulf states have attacked the US outreach to Iran and doubt it will 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. The 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.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.
Middle East watchers were stunned this month in Bahrain when Omani officials vigorously opposed a Saudi drive to further consolidate the defences of the six Sunni monarchies in the Arabian 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 militarise the region.“It was the talk of the conference,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organised 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 neighbour.”
Meanwhile, the sultan empowered one of his top economic advisers, Salem bin Nasser Al Esmaily, to broker the exchanges of Iranians and Americans captured in their opposing government’s dragnets, said officials from those countries.Mr Esmaily, 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 programme. Iran’s government had pressed Washington for the return of Mr Atarodi 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.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 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 American hikers, said senior US officials.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.