In all of the recent anxiety and instability surrounding American-Iranian relations, it may seem as though these two nations are on a collision course for war. Most countries have already picked their respective side. Nations like Saudi Arabia back America’s hardline stance against Iran, while nations like Russia are carefully sending signals of support to Iran. So with deepening polarization over this issue on the world stage, is there any nation that can serve as a credible mediator? Perhaps there is one, and it is literally caught in the middle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This week, we’ll take another look at the all-too-often overlooked nation of Oman and the role it can potentially play in the region.
It’s no secret by now that Iran has been trying to send strong signals that it wishes to pursue a nuclear weapons program if pushed to the limit. At the core of the matter, Iran is looking for regime security. Iran would prefer this security comes from strong trade relationships with European nations and assurances that the United States will not seek to remove the staunchly Islamic government by force. But Iran is also willing to pursue and obtain nuclear weapons as an alternative means of guaranteeing its security if it comes to that. This is why Iran ultimately held to the limits of the nuclear deal for as long as it did (nearly a year), even after the United States withdrew from it. This isn’t to excuse Iran’s other nefarious actions in the region, but now this withdrawal has removed all realistic alternatives for Iranian compliance (other than complete subjugation to American whims or total regime change, neither of which are realistic to request of the Iranian government).
Just across the Strait of Hormuz, the nation of Oman is drastically different. Omanis are mostly Arab instead of Persian and speak Arabic. Throughout Oman’s history, it has played an important role in regional trade, and so it’s culture has influences from around the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Oman’s unique religious beliefs also help distinguish it from other nations in the region. The majority of Omanis practice a branch of Islam known as Ibadi Islam. This sect predates the great Sunni-Shia split, so Oman has a much easier time remaining neutral in the religious divisions that plague the region. Another important cultural tenant of Ibadi Islam is that of working through problems via respect rather than direct confrontation.
All of this has helped cultivate an image of Oman as a legitimate mediator in regional disputes. Like most of the other Arab nations of the region, it is ruled by an absolute monarchy under the current ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. It also has credibility as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is an international institution that tries to coordinate economic and security policy among the nations of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. But Oman’s history also includes close ties with Iran. During the 1970s, Oman was fending off a communist insurgency in its southern region of Dhofar. Iran played a critical role in helping to put down this insurgency and ensure the continued reign of Sultan Qaboos. Even after the 1979 Islamic Revolution changed the entire character of Iran’s government, Oman has maintained a less-critical stance towards Iran’s government than the rest of its Arab neighbors.
So why should this matter to you? Keeping Iran nuclear free is essential to energy prices and regional “stability” (because as unstable as things are, they could definitely get much worse). The same goes for preventing a military conflict that removes the regime (which is likely the other alternative if negotiations never resume). An American military operation like that would likely encounter many of the same problems faced in Iraq, but on a much larger scale. Furthermore, the Iranian regime isn’t controlled by one single strongman like in Iraq. There is a large and established bureaucracy with many power centers. Though it’s highly likely the United States would easily win a military confrontation, the impending insurgency would continue to break America’s financial and psychological well-being. And lastly, the reality of complex cyber warfare means that Iran could retaliate in a variety of different ways if pushed to the brink. It could lash out with cyber attacks against American businesses, utility companies, or information databases. In this new era of global competition, the odds increase substantially that the American people would actually feel the impacts of military aggression.
Unfortunately, both the United States and Iran appear locked in a destructive spiral of aggressive posturing. Iran is breaking more and more of its uranium enrichment promises from the deal, and the United States continues to pile on more and more sanctions. Each side is looking to the other to back down first, but it’s difficult to imagine that will happen when Iran sees this conflict as an existential threat to itself. If anyone can help defuse the situation in Iran, perhaps it is Oman. After all, Oman helped play a critical role in establishing the nuclear deal in the first place. Perhaps it can play a critical role in bringing both sides back together again.