US defence secretary presses Oman on Iran weapons smuggling
US Defence Secretary James Mattis concluded a visit to Oman, where he had high-level talks with Omani officials on regional matters, including the war in Yemen and Iran’s alleged weapons smuggling to Houthi rebels.
Mattis’s trip came at a time the war in Yemen appears to be stagnating. The dispute pits US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar, another Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, and looks to be a long-term endeavour.
“The Gulf’s cohesion is critical we believe to maintaining stability in the region,” Mattis said in an Agence France-Presse report.
A statement from the US Defence Department said Mattis met with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said on March 12 “to explore ways to further strengthen our defence relationship.”
Issues discussed included the Yemeni civil war. Oman plays a key role in GCC counterterrorism efforts and ensuring freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Pentagon statement did not mention weapons smuggling but US analysts said that was due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
“American officials are concerned about Iranian arms going through Oman but anything they say would likely be in private,” NPR Security Correspondent David Welna reported. “Oman is just too important a back channel for the US in this region to get into some kind of public spat over this.”
Gulf officials said Mattis’s visit, which coincided with a trip by British Army General Christopher Michael Deverell, the UK commander of the Joint Forces Command, was meant to curb Iran’s influence in the region.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said stopping the flow of weapons to the Iran-allied Houthi rebels requires US-UK coordination, which would help force the militia to the negotiating table.
The UK-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR) in November 2016 released a report detailing Iran’s violation of the UN arms embargo to the Houthis.
“CAR’s analysis of the seized material… suggests the existence of a weapon pipeline extending from Iran to Somalia and Yemen, which involves the transfer, by dhow, of significant quantities of Iranian-manufactured weapons and weapons that plausibly derive from Iranian stockpiles,” the CAR report stated. The document was based on seizures in the Arabian Sea in February and March 2016.
Oman’s support for Tehran is a point of contention with most other GCC members.
The sultanate has traditionally been the most independent of the Arab Gulf countries with regards to foreign policy. When the war in Yemen broke out in March 2015, Oman was the only GCC member not to actively join the Saudi-led alliance fighting the Iran-allied Houthis, opting for a more intermediary diplomatic role in the conflict.
News that Muscat was instrumental in clandestinely bringing Iran and the United States to negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal also did not sit well with Oman’s Arab Gulf neighbours.
Compounding matters was Oman’s refusal to downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran after the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran was attacked by a mob in January 2016.
In September 2016, the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that weapons smuggled through Oman, allegedly meant for the Houthi rebels, were intercepted in Yemen. Marib Governor Sultan al-Arada said the armaments were discovered in trucks with Omani licence plates.
At a UN Security Council meeting this year, a UK-sponsored resolution linking Iran with the transfer of arms to Houthi militias in Yemen was vetoed by Russia.
“In spite of a mountain of credible, independent evidence showing Iran violated the Yemen arms embargo, resulting in a series of attacks on civilian targets, Russia prevented accountability and endangered the entire region,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.