Argument

Why Oman Loves Iran

The special relationship between the two countries traces back to a personal debt incurred by Sultan Qaboos.

Then-Omani leader Sultan Qaboos and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani review the honor guard during a welcome ceremony in Muscat, Oman, on March 12, 2014.
Then-Omani leader Sultan Qaboos and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani review the honor guard during a welcome ceremony in Muscat, Oman, on March 12, 2014. MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP via Getty Images

The death of Qaboos bin Said, the sultan of Oman, last week marked the departure of Iran’s closest ally in the Persian Gulf, whose mediation with the United States had recently been critical for Iranian diplomacy. As tensions between Tehran and Washington reach a new high following the U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, the sultan’s passing could not have come at a more critical time.

There’s good reason, in fact, to wonder whether the special relationship between Oman and Iran will even survive Qaboos’s death. In an important sense, it is a relationship forged in the sultan’s personal history with Tehran—specifically, the Iranian intervention in Oman’s civil war, which helped established Qaboos’s reign. That forgotten history, however, also sheds light on why ties between Iran and Oman remain firmly rooted. Although Qaboos is gone, his regime survives—and that regime is impossible to understand outside Iran’s support at its time of greatest need.

The story traces back to the early 1970s, when Iranian troops helped the sultan’s armed forces defeat a revolution taking place in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. At the request of Sultan Qaboos, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, sent troops and military assistance to back the sultan. Qaboos, who had become ruler of Oman in July 1970 after a British-led coup, was leading a British-backed war against the Marxist revolutionaries, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG). The guerrillas had waged an 11-year anti-colonial revolution in Dhofar from 1965 to 1976, fighting British imperialism in Oman and the region. With Qaboos’s victory, the modern Omani nation emerged.

Sultan Qaboos never forgot the importance of the Iranian role in Oman: After all, they helped him win the war. Between 1972 and 1975, several thousand Iranian troops were routinely sent to Oman. Only after Iran’s intervention did resources allow for large-scale operations to take place in Dhofar. The first Iranian mission was opening the PFLOAG’s Red Line, which was a strategic route for the revolutionaries in between eastern and western Dhofar. It was after this victory that the Iranian presence in Oman was publicly announced; it had previously been kept a secret as it was highly controversial. Even after the war, small numbers of Iranian gendarmes remained stationed in Oman until 1979, when the newly founded Islamic Republic of Iran ordered troops to return home, angered at the shah’s disposal of Iranian lives. While the exact figure is unknown, estimates range between a few hundred and a couple thousand Iranian deaths.

In the midst of the Cold War, the shah and Sultan Qaboos had aligned their concerns at the prospect of “communist infiltration” in the region. Sharing the sovereignty of the Strait of Hormuz, they were vulnerable to attacks on oil exports. Their key concern lay across the border from Dhofar—in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (also known as South Yemen), the only Marxist state to exist in the Middle East (1967-1990). It was suspected that Chinese and Soviet aid was reaching Dhofar through South Yemen, which was not untrue. In reality, the material support for the revolution consisted of light arms, revolutionary literature, and very small financial assistance, which was wholly incomparable to the Iranian and British support for the sultan’s forces. Yet Sultan Qaboos had declared that while the Eastern Bloc remained involved in South Yemen, the sultan would rely on the shah. It was in their shared interests to contain the perceived Soviet influence in the region.

For Qaboos, Iran had critically helped him when neighboring Arab states had not. This gesture would remain etched in Sultan Qaboos’s memory. When Qaboos had indeed requested support from other Arab countries in quelling the revolution, the most he had received was a short spell of Jordanian involvement. He faced criticisms from Arab countries for involving Iran in Arab affairs but defended his decision to ask for the shah’s help, arguing that he had every right to ask Iran, not least because it was a Muslim country and a neighboring state.

While the personal connection between Sultan Qaboos and the shah certainly formed the foundations of the special relationship between Iran and Oman, the relationship has extended beyond the toppling of the Pahlavi dynasty with the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 and continued with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has been down to the sultanate’s lasting gratitude toward Iran, paired with its neutral foreign policy and self-proclaimed principle of peaceful coexistence.

In recent years, Oman has been a vital conduit for Iran in diplomatic matters. Most notably, in 2012, the Omanis facilitated secret talks in Muscat for senior American and Iranian officials ahead of the multilateral negotiations for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Omani channel helped resolve differences between the two sides and also made way for the historic phone call between then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. In other high-profile cases, the Omanis have played an important role of mediation. They negotiated with the Iranians for the release of three American hikers, who were detained in 2009. Leaked cables showed that in a communication with the U.S. Embassy in Oman, Yusuf bin Alawi, the Omani foreign minister, had “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran—if kept quiet.” Similarly, when the Iranian Canadian academic Homa Hoodfar was released in 2016, she thanked Omani officials for helping to secure her release.

Moving forward, the desire for stability in the region remains at the forefront of Oman’s foreign policy, and a strong relationship with Iran is central to that equation. Qaboos’s successor, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, was personally chosen by the late sultan, whose name was confirmed in a sealed envelope—the contents of which were known only by Qaboos. There had been much speculation over the sultan’s choice in the letter since Qaboos’s illness in recent years. The immediate appointment of his cousin Haitham clearly signals a legacy of continuity, with the ruling family choosing to promptly open the letter rather than settle on a successor themselves, demonstrating respect and urgency for the late sultan’s wishes. The University of Oxford-educated Haitham has extensive experience in diplomacy and no military background and is thought to be the candidate most like Qaboos himself. After being sworn in, Sultan Haitham was quick to announce that he will continue the late sultan’s foreign policy of friendly ties and peaceful coexistence.

What does this mean for the special relationship with Iran? On Jan. 7, only days before the sultan’s death, Oman’s mediation was seen in effect amid escalated tensions between the United States and Iran. Foreign Minister bin Alawi told officials in a Tehran conference that Washington had been in constant contact with Muscat over easing the conflict and seeking de-escalation. This was, however, only a day before the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which caused 176 civilian casualties and has jolted the United States and Iran into an unprecedented phase of heightened apprehension. One of Sultan Qaboos’s final cables was a message of condolences to Rouhani for the victims of the plane crash and their families. Rouhani has already indicated the desire for closer ties with the “brotherly” nation of Oman in a letter to the new sultan. In this dark moment for U.S.-Iran relations, there is much to be gained for the United States in recognizing Sultan Haitham as a conceivable interlocutor and ally.

On top of these tensions, the European powers have triggered a formal dispute mechanism over Iran’s breaches of the nuclear deal—which Iran claims are legitimate since the United States abandoned the deal in 2018. Sultan Haitham thus arrives at a decisive and challenging moment and may want to offer a channel for nuclear conciliation, but it is unlikely that Tehran and Washington will reach any agreement that does not come with Iranian losses. Instead, the question of Iran in Arab affairs will require careful mediation. Unlike his predecessor however, Haitham will not have to defend his position with Iran—it is already assumed and very much needed. With the potential of further Iranian revenge attacks against U.S. targets in the region, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries hosting U.S. bases remain on edge. Consequently, the new sultan inherits the position at a delicate moment for the Persian Gulf, and his first challenge comes at the intersection of regional and international crisis, balancing the GCC states, Tehran, and Washington.

In such turbulent times, the Middle East desperately needs a mediator like Sultan Qaboos. Sultan Haitham arrives at a particularly demanding moment, but he will continue the quest for stability in the region. Oman’s foreign policy of peaceful coexistence, tolerance, and diplomacy—friend to all, enemy to none—will survive Sultan Qaboos and so too will his respected special relationship with Iran.

Marral Shamshiri-Fard is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, researching the history of the Iranian intervention in Oman. She has an M.Phil. in modern Middle Eastern studies from the University of Oxford.

Twitter: @sham_marral

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