A visit that will influence Iran's relations with West
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani (R) with Oman's Sultan Qaboos
Every time that the names of Oman and its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, have hit the headlines in mainstream international media, there has been invariably a problem between Iran and the United States. Sultan Qaboos has so far managed to help with the resolution of a number of these problems and has emerged as a successful mediator in this regard. Now, Oman and its Sultan are once again trying to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the West. This time the two sides have reportedly talked about removal of certain items of international sanctions against Iran's banking sector as well as uranium enrichment on Iran's soil. Some sources have noted that Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the Sultan of Oman, has tried during his recent visit to Iran to provide grounds for indirect negotiations between Iran and the United States. They have added that Sultan Qaboos had obtained prior consent of both Tehran and Washington to offer his proposals to Iranian officials. There have been also reports saying that the Sultan of Oman has been supposed to come up with a proposal according to which Iran would accept to reduce the pace and the level of uranium enrichment and, in return, the West would recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium on its soil.
However, apart from transregional mediations, the two countries have also discussed ways of strengthening bilateral relations. Upon his arrival at Mehrabad Airport in the Iranian capital, Tehran, Sultan Qaboos said his country was ready to work with Iran in order to further activate the North-South Corridor for trade. The corridor is being constructed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. During later discussions, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, for his turn, lauded position of Oman in the area of regional cooperation as excellent. He emphasized that the Islamic Republic of Iran is interested in further strengthening of its relations with the friendly and brotherly Oman in various sectors, especially trade and economy. The longstanding cordial relations between the two countries have helped to resolve tensions between Iran and regional Arab countries as well as transregional players one way or another. The quality of good neighborly relations between Tehran and Muscat, both in the past and present, in addition to goals of the recent visit by Sultan Qaboos to Iran and Oman's mediatory role in Iran's relations with the West have been discussed in an interview with Siavash Zargar Yaqoubi, Iran's former ambassador to Oman and India. The complete text of the interview follows.
Q: Sultan Qaboos traveled to Iran to discuss various domestic and regional issues with Iranian officials. Why Oman? Is there a special background to cordial relations between the two countries?
A: Before the Islamic Revolution and after Sultan Qaboos grabbed power in Oman, having relations with Iran, especially having close relations with Iran, was among top priorities of Oman's foreign policy agenda. There are few points which can be used here to explain the reason of closeness between the two countries. First of all, Iran and Oman have common interests in the Strait of Hormuz; Iran is situated north of the strategic waterway while Oman is situated to its south. Therefore, any threat to the Strait of Hormuz, both in the past and in the present, has been perceived as a common threat by Iran and Oman. As a result, the two countries have always tried to maintain close and friendly relations. In the meantime, the Strait of Hormuz and having common borders along that strait has never caused a problem in bilateral relations between the two countries, but has conversely served to cement those ties. According to an official instrument which was drawn up by the two countries before the Islamic Revolution and has been also registered at the United Nations, Iran and Oman have been announced as the main parties in charge of maintaining the security along the Strait of Hormuz.
On the other hand, the proximity of Oman to Iran's southern ports and provinces, including Fars and Bushehr provinces and Bandar Abbas port city, has put Oman in special conditions with regard to Iran. Oman has been historically a destination for the Iranian immigrants who formed an active minority in Oman's territory and their remnants can be still found there.
There have been even marriages between royal families or high-ranking officials of the two countries in the past which have further served to consolidate relations between Tehran and Muscat.
Before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Oman was under various pressures. The civil war had broken out in the Persian Gulf sultanate with leftist guerrilla groups attempting to conquer the country from the south. If the country had come under the control of the armed leftist forces, the security of the Strait of Hormuz would have been certainly at stake. Therefore, due to the threat that Iran perceived and despite opposition from certain countries, the former Shah of Iranian decided to help Sultan Qaboos and Tehran managed to play a very effective role in assisting the central government in Muscat to prevail over the leftist guerillas.
Q: The Islamic Republic of Iran has been considered by Arab countries in the region as a threat because they have been concerned that the message of the revolution may be heard in Arab countries of the region as well. How relations between Iran and Oman have fared following the Islamic Revolution?
A: Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Oman did its best to take advantage of its capacities and help Iran to improve its ties with other countries, especially the Western states. Although in certain junctures, relations between the two countries were not as friendly as before, it was important to Oman that Iran can find its deserved position in the region. Oman was well aware that a powerful Iran, which would be able to maintain its power bases in the region, would be in favor of Oman as well as sustainable stability in the region. The country has been pursuing this strategy so far. Therefore, Omanis have always did what they can to restore relations with Iran to the level they were in the past and those efforts gradually proved effective by normalizing bilateral relations between Tehran and Muscat.
Q: The war between Iran and Iraq had a negative impact on Iran's relations with regional Arab countries. What impact did it have on the relations between Iran and Oman?
A: The Iraqi imposed war on Iran brought about a relative change in Iran's foreign policy priorities. However, throughout the war between Iran and Iraq, when member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] spared no effort to help Iraq, Oman remained neutral and despite tremendous pressures from other members of (P)GCC, which urged Muscat to join their warmongering efforts, it never did that. Oman was even under pressure to somehow make the Strait of Hormuz insecure or cause other problems in order to prevent Iranians from easily using the strait. The Omani government, however, never accepted to do that. Therefore, in a general overview of relations between Iran and Oman, one may say that those relations have been traditionally friendly. During the past years, Oman has been also playing a positive role as mediator between Iran and the Western states, especially the United States.
Q: You referred to the mediatory role played by Oman with regard to Iran-US relations. Through what means has that mediation taken place?
A: Iran has never asked any country to play the role of a mediator between Tehran and the West. However, certain regional governments have been constantly willing to see stability in the region, even for the sake of maintaining security in their countries and other strategic considerations of their own. Therefore, they have been actively trying to reduce tensions between Iran and the United States. Judging from their own viewpoint, they believe that reduction of tensions and establishment of less tense relations between Iran and the United States will be certainly beneficial to them and to the entire region. This is why Omani officials have been always concerned about escalation of tension or other serious problems in the region. The country has been constantly trying to eliminate grounds for tension through understanding and dialogue and encourage regional countries to improve relations in all fields. Therefore, Oman has been regularly playing an effective role through efforts aimed to get regional countries converge on common viewpoints.
Q: During recent years, Iran's relations with Arab countries in the region have been characterized with tension. Can Oman play its mediatory role, not only between Iran and the West, but also between Iran and Arab countries in the Middle East?
A: If you mean that Oman should try to facilitate Iran's relations with other member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, it would be very unlikely for Oman to engage in such a mediatory effort. One reason is that Saudi Arabia has serious problems with Iran as a result of its own strategic considerations and this is also true about other members of the (P)GCC, which also have many problems with Iran. Part of those problems stem from religious differences between the two sides while another part emanates from territorial issues. Therefore, Oman, which is also a member of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, cannot be expected to make any effort to get other countries solve their problems with Iran. Of course, it should be noted that if Iran takes steps to eliminate tension in its relations with other countries, it will certainly help the Islamic Republic to reset its relations with member states of the (P)GCC and elevate those relations to a new balanced level.
Q: Do you think that Sultan Qaboos has been conveying a message to Iran about the situation in Syria, so as to pave the way for a diplomatic solution to be found for Syria crisis?
A: The situation in Syria is not a priority on Oman's foreign policy agenda. Although the Syria Embassy is still active in Muscat, it is very unlikely that Omani officials would be willing to play a part in Syria crisis. This is a crisis in which certain members of the (P)GCC have been seriously involved and playing an active part. Therefore, I don't think that Sultan Qaboos will take any step in the form of consultation or mediation with respect to the situation in Syria. I am more willing to think that this meeting [between Omani monarch and Iranian officials] has been more about bilateral relations between Iran and Oman as well as relations between Iran and the West.
Q: Can this trip have any positive impact on Iran's foreign relations?
A: Yes. This trip can certainly have a very positive effect in terms of helping to reduce tensions in Iran's relations with the West, especially the United States. The past history of Oman's mediation in problems that existed between Iran and the West proves that Oman has been able to play a positive role in this regard. Most probably, the recent trip can be also expected to be a further effective step in the same direction.
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