As pressure mounts on the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps because of Trump administration measures, Tehran’s efforts to capitalise on the rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and boost its relations with Oman have intensified.
Recent visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Oman and Qatar and his subsequent statements were perceived as attempts to divide the GCC.
“A day after substantive meetings with Sultan of Oman and emir of Qatar, a successful Iran-Turkey summit in Tehran. Neighbours are our priority,” Zarif posted on Twitter.
He also said Iran’s views on the war in Yemen were in line with those of the Qatari and Omani governments, comments not likely to be taken well in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Qatar was part of the Arab coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi militia but was pushed out after a crisis broke out in June between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours.
Because of security and economic considerations, Oman is in a difficult situation, trying to act like a member of the GCC while maintaining friendly ties with Tehran. In late 2014, Gulf officials were surprised to learn that Oman had secretly brokered talks between the United States and Iran that eventually led to the nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers.
Oman not only helped broker the talks between the two traditional enemies but is party to the nuclear agreement. It hosts excess heavy water — used in reactors that could produce materials needed for nuclear weapons — from Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Muscat’s motivations are mostly economic. Years of low oil prices have taken a toll on Oman’s economy, with the sultanate posting a deficit of $6.5 billion in the first half of 2017, an improvement from the same time last year, when its deficit was at $9.6 billion.
The Omani government is dealing with a significant unemployment problem, with the World Bank estimating the joblessness rate at 17.5% in 2016. The Arabic hashtag “Omanis without jobs” was recently trending on Twitter, with Omanis urging the government to create jobs for unemployed young people.
Fearing a wave of public unrest like the 2011 “Arab spring”-inspired protests, the government pledged to create 25,000 public sector jobs by December, a move that could add to the budget deficit.
Apparently exploiting this economic need, Zarif announced a series of joint enterprises’ and economic incentives during his visit to Oman, despite his own country’s ailing economy.
“Omanis are going to give Iran an exclusive access to Al-Suwayq Port so that the ships with a capacity below 3,000 tonnes can berth there, unload their merchandise and discharge them from the customs.” Iranian Ambassador to Oman Mohammad Reza Nuri Shahroudi said.
He said Muscat would permit Iranian companies to register locally and export goods to Oman or re-export to African and Indian Ocean countries.
Besides strengthening bilateral ties, Zarif sought Oman’s help with the Trump administration. With US President Donald Trump questioning the utility of the 2005 nuclear agreement with Iran, Zarif reportedly asked Oman to intervene, hoping for a breakthrough like the one that brought the parties together in the first place.
The pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Zarif asked Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah to mediate and convey to Washington “a set of new proposals designed to prevent a showdown with the Trump administration.”
Considering the divide between Washington and Tehran, the chances of an Omani initiative succeeding are considered minimal.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.