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Will ties with Iran change under Oman’s new sultan?

A new sultan sitting on the throne in Muscat has sparked questions about the future of traditionally cordial ties Tehran held with the late peacemaker, Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said is sworn in before the royal family council in Muscat, Oman January 11, 2020.  REUTERS/Sultan Al Hasani     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2MDE9MAR1J

Tehran and Muscat have for decades maintained close relations, a tradition that was upheld even after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

However, Oman’s long-serving leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, died Jan. 10 at the age of 79, and the prospect of cordial Iran-Oman relations is subject to speculation.

Some concern had already been sparked by recent news of the sultan's deteriorating health after a long battle with colon cancer. The iconic mediator played an effective role in the most contentious Iran-related cases on the international stage, from the marathon nuclear negotiations between Tehran and world powers — which involved historic direct Iran-US talks — to the release of American prisoners over the years.

Under Qaboos, Oman managed to adhere to impartiality in its foreign policy and was sometimes called the “Middle East’s Switzerland.” Unlike Persian Gulf Arab states, Muscat maintained its support for Tehran at the height of tensions, which saw the Islamic Republic of Iran at odds with most of Washington’s regional allies. Iran appears to have understood and appreciated the value of such backing at a moment of crisis.

In a rare revelation in June 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei alluded to Omani-mediated backchannel talks between Tehran and Washington without openly naming Qaboos: “One of the esteemed leaders in the region visited Tehran relaying the message from US President [Barack Obama] that they are willing to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran and lift the sanctions.”

In a sealed letter only opened after his death, the veteran mediator named his 65-year-old cousin and former culture minister, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, as the successor to the throne. The new sultan was officially sworn in Jan. 11, and a cloud of uncertainty continues to shroud the trajectory of Iran-Oman relations.

The new leader is facing tough economic and foreign policy decisions, among other challenges. The country’s annual economic growth rate plummeted to a record negative 0.9% in 2017, down from a positive 5% only a year earlier. Muscat, at the same time, has to tackle security threats and keep itself immune to the flames of all-out conflicts in a combustive Middle East.

Representing the Islamic Republic, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attended Qaboos’ funeral and sat down with the new leader Jan. 12. Five days before the meeting, Zarif’s Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi, was in Tehran, a destination he has visited frequently in recent years. Alawi landed in the Iranian capital again Jan. 21, marking his first trip in the reign of the new sultan and in the aftermath of renewed US-Iran escalation triggered by the assassination of top Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The US strike that killed Soleimani near the Baghdad International Airport prompted Tehran to retaliate with a missile strike on US facilities at Ain al-Assad Air Base in Iraq.

According to a senior diplomat with Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Muscat has proven its goodwill to Tehran during the course of yearslong friendly ties.

“After the assassination of Soleimani, the Omanis immediately contacted Iran, asking it to exercise restraint in its response to the attack,” he said. The diplomat, who requested anonymity, also told Al-Monitor of the Omani foreign minister’s latest mission in Tehran, where he conveyed a US offer for talks with the Islamic Republic.

“But no one in Tehran takes into serious consideration US willingness for negotiations,” the diplomat said, adding that such offers are interpreted by the Iranian leadership as more of a public relations gesture than a genuine desire to defuse tensions. “We told the Omanis, with all due respect, that given the current circumstances Iran does not see a minimum level of serious willingness on the part of the United States for de-escalation.”

Persian Gulf affairs analyst and journalist Kamran Karami discussed with Al-Monitor the question of whether Oman is likely to continue the style of mediation characteristic of Qaboos in Iran-involved issues.

“Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will tend to make use of the new political order in Oman for their own interests,” Karami said. “In addition, given the economic challenges Oman’s new sultan is facing, it is likely that the country’s foreign policy will become less balanced in the years to come.”

Another variable to be taken into account in Oman’s foreign policy is the country’s traditional ties with the United Kingdom. With its divorce from the European Union now official, the UK could seek to strengthen its influence in the Middle East and, in turn, Oman’s foreign policy.

“Unfortunately, Tehran did not reap enough fruit from its cordial ties with Muscat during the reign of Sultan Qaboos,” former Iranian Ambassador to Jordan Nosratollah Tajik said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We could have expanded economic ties with Oman to increase the interdependency.”

In spite of that, according to the retired diplomat, there is sufficient cultural, geopolitical, demographic and political common ground between the two that would make Muscat unlikely to change its friendly approach toward Tehran.

In its assessment of the new order in Oman, the Islamic Republic is expected to travel the extra mile to preserve the traditional amity, as it understands that regional rivals may not wait long before seeking to pull the new Omani government into their own club to intensify the already-mounting pressure on Tehran.

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