By Nicole Salter
August 11, 2018
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmedWednesday that Oman, along with Switzerland, has offered to mediate talks between the Islamic Republic and the United States. The offer comes amid statements from President Trump that he is willing to meet with Iranian leaders, even as the U.S. re-imposes sanctions on the regime.
Neither the Swiss nor the Omani offer to mediate talks is surprising. The Swiss embassy in Tehran has handled American interests in the Islamic Republic since 1980, and Oman hosted some of the talks that ultimately led to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1.
In 2009, Oman’s foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi, offered a proposal to the Obama administration to “arrange any meeting you want and provide the venue.” While no meetings were held that year, a backchannel was established where Muscat passed messages between Washington and Tehran. Seeking to foster goodwill on both sides, Oman then facilitated the return of three American hikers detained in Iran – after paying a ransom of $500,000 per hiker – while negotiating the return of four Iranians whom the United States had accused or convicted of shipping banned items to Iran. Direct talks in Muscat between U.S. and Iranian officials finally began in 2012.
But the history of Omani mediation on behalf of Iran predates the nuclear negotiations. When the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, Oman maintained diplomatic relations with both countries. Muscat even held secret talks between the two adversaries during the war, although no agreement was ever reached. Similarly, after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Oman retained diplomatic relations with both countries and attempted to resolve the crisis, to no avail.
More recently, Oman has also led mediation efforts to resolve the current conflict in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In April 2015, Oman put forward a seven-point plan, reportedly in coordination with Saudi Arabia and Iran. While that effort failed, Muscat facilitated a meeting the following month between senior Houthi figures and U.S. officials, and another meeting with then-Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2016. In recent years, Oman has been accused of allowing the Iranians to smuggle weapons to the Houthis through its territory.
President Trump’s decision in May to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal has created a new opportunity for Oman to revive its role as a mediator between the two countries. But the sultanate also has much to gain economically from encouraging improved relations with Iran and the rest of the world. Oman desperately needs to purchase Iranian natural gas, but a planned pipeline between the two countries has stalled due to sanctions and U.S. objections.
If Iran’s recent willingness to talk with Trump is sincere, Oman’s offer to mediate between them could be helpful. But Washington should make clear that sanctions on Iran are to remain airtight. Muscat can be rewarded in other ways.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies