Iran-Oman Relations, a Role Model for Other Persian Gulf States

Friday, May 2, 2014

Hossein Kebriaeizadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

Among all the Arab countries situated along the southern rim of the Persian Gulf, Oman has always had good relations with Iran as a result of policies adopted by Muscat to reduce tension with its neighboring states and maintain balanced relations with all the countries in the region. This is a country which has skillfully struck a balance between its relations with Iran and relations with the opponents of the Islamic Republic. As a result of the high level of trust between the two countries, Iranian officials believe that relations between Iran and the Sultanate of Oman can serve as a good role model for other countries in the region.

By treading the right path toward confidence building as a result of due attention to the fundamental principle of mutual dependence among countries in economic and security issues in modern times, Tehran and Muscat have been adopting a foreign policy approach based on convergence. As a result, even in the area of military activities, some Iranian destroyers and warships, such as Kharg and Shahid Qandi, have sometimes called at Omani ports after the end of their maritime missions. However, the main manifestation of the two countries’ convergence in military and security issues has been the establishment of a joint military committee between Iran and Oman whose regular annual meetings have been alternatively held in Tehran and Muscat. Holding joint military drills in the Strait of Hormuz has been one of the achievements of the joint military committee. It also proves Oman’s trust in Iran's policy which believes that security of the Persian Gulf should be maintained only by regional countries without any role for transregional powers.

There is no doubt that Oman’s realistic approach to accepting Iran as a powerful country in the region has caused Muscat to be the sole member of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] to argue that peaceful use of nuclear energy is Iran's inalienable right. Oman has been also among countries supporting the recent interim nuclear deal reached between Iran and the six world powers in the Swiss city of Geneva last November. Even in case of territorial disputes between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, Oman strongly believes in negotiations as the best solution. Salim bin Mohammed al Mahrouqi, a former Omani diplomat who served in Washington, has noted that Iran's power cannot be easily ignored. He maintains that Iran is a big neighbor and ignoring it is, per se, dangerous let along considering it an enemy.

It was due to this attitude that even during the Iraq’s imposed war against Iran and unlike some other Arab countries in the region, Oman did not let [the former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein to use its soil to attack Iran.

Such friendly approaches between two countries have shaped a positive mentality between Iran and Oman. As a result and due to the two countries’ efforts to build trust with each other during the past decades, Muscat has even played a mediatory role in some difficult cases such as Iran's nuclear energy program or relations between Iran and the United States. Oman’s mediation has been also instrumental in some other cases including the release of British sailors captivated by the Iranian forces in 2007, or later release of three American mountaineers who had entered the Iranian territory through its Western borders in 2011.

Apart from the aforesaid cases, Oman, as a country which is vulnerable in economic and security terms, is located in the proximity of a country that is in conflict with major regional and transregional powers. Muscat is well aware that in case of a possible war between Iran and the member states of the (P)GCC or transregional countries, it would not be immune to possible damages. Therefore, it is trying to reduce the cost of such a possible faceoff in the region to a minimum by mediating between the two sides.

On the other hand, Muscat does not put all its faith in this mechanism (of mediation). The result is the evident conflict of interests and serious divergence among the member states of the (P)GCC, which has caused Muscat to reach the conclusion that this alliance is not a successful and stable alliance. Add to this the fact that the bigger brother of the (P)GCC member states [that is, Saudi Arabia], is sparing no effort to promote Salafism and export it to its neighboring countries. This issue has been the cause of serious concerns during recent years, and has greatly worried Oman as well. On the other hand, both countries have taken important and solid steps to bolster bilateral cooperation in economic areas. As a result, the volume of trade between Iran and Oman has reached an acceptable level compared to Iran's trade with other countries on the southern rim of the Persian Gulf. At the same time and regardless of official figures on trade volume between the two countries, part of bilateral trade between Tehran and Muscat pertains to carry-on trade by their citizens, which is usually not reflected in official figures.

It seems that Iran and Oman have already gone through the confidence building phase of their relations through correct understanding of each other’s concerns and awareness of the problems that face each country. As a result, in spite of some ideological differences between the two neighboring states, they have been able to provide necessary grounds for the development of bilateral relations in economic and security fields and are currently becoming trustworthy partners for each other. This issue is a rare phenomenon in relations among littoral Arab states of the Persian Gulf despite apparent ideological similarities among them.

Key Words: Iran-Oman Relations, Role Model, Persian Gulf States, Arab Countries, (P)GCC, Kebriaeizadeh

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