Why Iran and Oman are strengthening relations
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Iran and Oman will deepen their ties amidst the continuing Gulf diplomatic crisis, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced today.
Muscat’s foreign minister Yussef Bin Alawi was on the same page, the Iranian government website reported: “Omani leaders believe our ties should be developed.”
'An erroneous method'
Iran has taken Qatar’s side in the dispute, with Rouhani describing the four states’ move as “an erroneous method”. Oman has also kept links with Qatar, while adopting a mediatory position, joining in a series of US and Kuwaiti-led talks this week aimed at negotiating a solution to the crisis.
Such a conciliatory, intermediary position is part of Muscat’s established approach. Religious and geographic circumstances have helped forge this role. Seventy-five percent of Omanis are neither Sunni nor Shia but belong to the Ibadi school of Islam. Meanwhile, Oman is separated from Iran by the narrow Strait of Hormuz and by its fellow Arab Peninsular states thanks to mountainous borders.
Accordingly, Muscat has tended towards equilibrium between Riyadh and Tehran. For example, when Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016 – provoking exceptionally high tensions between the two powers – Oman condemned the subsequent attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
But it also balanced this by declining to cut or downgrade diplomatic relations with Tehran – unlike all the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. In addition to this, Oman sent two officials to Tehran in efforts to defuse the crisis.
Today’s declarations suggest that Muscat is leaning closer to Tehran. Iran’s motivations for deepening bonds seem easy to explain. It lacks reliable allies in the region. Its biggest friends are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Iraq.
However, Assad still requires colossal Iranian (and Russian) support just to survive Syria’s now six-year civil war. At the same time – while belonging to the Shia Dawa Party, which has long been close to Tehran – al-Abadi is weary of alienating Iraq’s Sunni minority. He thus keeps his distance from the chief Shia power across its border.
'An impulsive policy of intervention'
The Qatar crisis seems to be the catalyst for Iran and Oman strengthening ties. Many see an increasingly bold Saudi Arabia as leading the four Sunni states’ moves to cut off Doha. Last month Riyadh’s King Salman sacked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef – widely regarded as a pragmatic and competent operator, and close to US and UK intelligence agencies.
Salman replaced him with his own son, Mohammed bin Salman – whom the German external intelligence agency the BND has described as adopting “an impulsive policy of intervention”.
It could be said that Salman adopted this approach a couple of years ago. In his previous role as Defence Minister he played a key role in the Saudi intervention against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen since 2015. Many observers see the Saudis’ military actions there as destructive yet ineffective.
For several years, relations between Riyadh and Doha have been tense – with key differences over the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. However, the boycott of Qatar strikes many in the Middle East as surprising and extreme. Doha is relatively isolated; it has lacked an alliance with regional powers, except for Turkey.
In this context of perceived Saudi belligerence, the Iranians and Omanis have a clear reason for keeping each other close.