Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with Sultan of Oman Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said R) in Muscat, Oman on October 26, 2018. (Photo by ISRAELI PRIME MINISTRY OFFICE / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Analysts: Oman Could Become Facilitator in US-Iran Issues

US is urged to bolster ties with strategically-located Gulf nation, often seen as neutral facilitator in region

The Sultanate of Oman could play a key in role in bolstering a common front against Iranian aggression in the Middle East and helping the United States broker a fresh nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, analysts say.

While Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia, has often remained under the radar amid arguably more pressing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the small oil-producing sultanate was crucial to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement pushed by then-US president Barack Obama as a way of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the agreement and renewed crippling economic sanctions on Tehran.

“Now that the US has withdrawn from the deal, Oman could still be instrumental for potential US-Iran negotiations, as the US is trying to push Iran to renegotiate a new deal,” Camille Lons, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.

“Some observers have been speculating that the US could be reviving the Omani backchannel to negotiate with the Iranians,” Lons said. “There is a strong push coming from the US, Saudi Arabia/UAE and Israel to align with their anti-Iran axis. Unlike countries like Qatar, Oman’s economic and political leverage is too weak to allow it to resist the assault of foreign powers.”

Diplomatic ties between Oman and the US go back almost two centuries, with a treaty of friendship and navigation having been signed in 1833. The two countries also share strong economic ties, with the US exporting machinery, vehicles and agricultural products to the Gulf nation.

Under the Trump Administration, relations have cooled due to suspicions about the sultanate’s ongoing economic and diplomatic ties with Iran. Unlike many other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, Muscat does not view Tehran as a threat. Nevertheless, in recent months, the situation between Oman and the US has improved.

Last week, Washington struck a deal with the sultanate granting the US military access to Omani airports and ports. Of particular significance is the port of Duqm, located on the coast of the Arabian Sea a mere 310 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to block due to ongoing tensions with Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia. Nearly a third of the world’s maritime oil shipments pass through the strait each day.

Lons said that Trump’s shifting attitude toward the sultanate was directly linked to its recent rapprochement with Israel. Last fall, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Oman and met with Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the first meeting between leaders of the two countries since 1996. Similarly, Oman’s foreign minister made an official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority last year.

“Since Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, things have been much better [between Washington and Muscat],” Lons asserted. “[Jared] Kushner and [US Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason] Greenblatt were in Muscat to discuss the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace plan. Oman’s mediation role in the Israel-Palestine peace process is seen by the Americans as instrumental to advance this broader regional rapprochement between Arab Gulf countries and Israel.”

Still, she said, there was room for improvement in US-Omani ties.

“The US should really protect Oman’s neutrality instead of trying to push them in the anti-Iran camp because [Washington] will need such a mediator to maintain channels with Iran.”

Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, considers Oman’s role in the Middle East “critical” for Washington.

“Oman is often called a mediator, but it plays more of a facilitator role. It often helps bring together parties that need a safe space to talk,” DeLozier told The Media Line.

“Oman’s relationship with Iran, which the Obama Administration saw as an enormous asset, may increasingly be seen by the Trump Administration as a liability,” she went on. “Accusations that Oman allowed Iranian weapons to cross the border with Yemen to the Houthis have not helped, although Oman vehemently denies these accusations.”

DeLozier believes Oman’s neutral stance toward Tehran is unlikely to change in the short-term, especially with Sultan Qaboos at the helm. The 78-year-old ruler currently holds the title for the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, having held office since he overthrew his father in 1970.

“The Trump Administration appreciates Qaboos’s efforts toward Israel, the two countries’ continued counter-terrorism cooperation and the Omani purchase of US weapons,” she said.

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