Oman, a crucial back channel between Iran and US

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University

Prior to launching a barrage of drones and missiles at Israel on April 13, 2024, Iran reportedly got word to Washington that its response to an earlier strike on its embassy compound in Syria would seek to avoid major escalation. The message was conveyed via the Gulf Arab state of Oman.

The current crisis in the Middle East is one that officials in Oman have spent years trying to avoid. Located across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, and with close defense and security ties to the U.S. and the U.K., Oman is aware that tit-for-tat attacks raise the risk of a broader war that would engulf countries and armed nonstate groups across the region.

Full-blown war could be triggered by further escalatory actions by Tehran or Jerusalem. But it could also occur through miscalculation or misunderstanding, especially given the lack of official bilateral channels for dialogue and de-escalation.

And this is where Oman steps in. For years, the Gulf state has quietly built a track record of easing regional tensions through diplomacy. It has continued to play this role since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. In the months since that assault and Israel's response in Gaza inflamed the region, Oman has held high-level dialogues with Iran, hosted British Foreign Secretary David Cameron for talks on security in the Red Sea, and called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

It could now play a crucial role in keeping a channel of communication open between the U.S. and Iran as parties seek to tamp down tensions.

Standing apart from regional rivalries

Along with neighboring Qatar and Kuwait – as well as Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of an American embassy – Oman has played a critical role in back-channel diplomacy.

But Oman's approach is distinct from that of other nations. Rather than participating in direct talks, it creates space for dialogue, serving as a facilitator rather than a mediator.

Multiple reasons account for the Omani decision to act as a facilitator. Unlike several of the other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Oman lacks a history of tense relations with Iran.

Rather, Omanis recall that Iran under the shah provided support to Oman during the 1970s when the Gulf state's then young new sultan, Qaboos bin Said, was fighting a decadelong uprising in the southern province of Dhofar.

Even after the shah was ousted in the 1979 Iranian revolution and replaced by a clerical regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Oman stood apart from others in the region and declined to get involved in regional rivalries and competition for geopolitical influence that marred Iran's ties with other Gulf states.

Secret back channels

Representing a small state in a volatile region, Omani officials have created diplomatic spaces that permit them to engage with regional issues on their own terms and in ways that play to their strengths. As Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, a career diplomat who became the Omani foreign minister in 2020, noted back in 2003, "We try to make use of our intermediate position between larger powers to reduce the potential for conflict in our immediate neighborhood."

Unlike Qatar, which has attracted worldwide attention over its role as a mediator in Hamas-Israel negotiations, Oman engages less in mediation and more in facilitation.

This is an important distinction and one the Omanis have maintained in regards to engaging with U.S. and Iranian officials, as well as Saudi and Houthi representatives during the decade-long Yemeni civil war.

Omani facilitation takes varied forms. It can consist of passing messages and maintaining indirect channels of communication between adversaries or arranging back channels and hosting discreet meetings.

There is little of the publicity seen in Qatar's mediation initiatives, such as the talks with the Taliban that produced the 2020 Doha Agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

But Oman's approach can nonetheless yield results. In his memoir, "The Back Channel," written after his retirement from the State Department and before his appointment as President Joe Biden's director of the CIA, William Burns provided a detailed account of the Omani role in facilitating the back channel between U.S. and Iranian officials in 2013 that evolved into negotiations that produced the the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.

That back channel began after Iranian officials passed a message through Oman to the U.S. in 2012 suggesting a meeting in Muscat, the Gulf state's capital.

Burns recalled that the head of Omani intelligence "greeted both delegations as we walked into the meeting room" and "offered a few brief words of welcome and then departed."

The back channel remained secret throughout eight rounds of generally constructive dialogue that marked the longest and most sustained engagement between Iranian and U.S. officials since 1979.

Hosting adversaries

While the thaw between the U.S. and Iran didn't last, the Omani back channel highlighted several factors key to the success of any attempt to dial down tensions between seemingly implacable adversaries.

The trust both sides had in Omani officials was critical, and the positive outcome of the meetings built confidence in each side's use of Omani channels.

Oman's role as a facilitator of indirect engagement between the U.S. and Iran assumed added importance with President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the failure of the Biden administration to reenter the agreement.

Seemingly the only time Oman has not been willing to serve this role – when tensions soared after the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani in January 2020 – was because Sultan Qaboos was critically ill. In Oman's absence, the Swiss led the back channel.

Tamping down tensions

During the heightened tensions since the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, Oman has passed on messages between Iranian and U.S. officials. In January 2024, Omani officials hosted delegations of senior negotiators from both countries, shuttling between the representatives in separate rooms.

Even as a wider regional conflict loomed in the Middle East after Israel presumably bombed an Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, Oman was on hand to try to tamp down tensions.

On April 7, Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, visited Oman – providing an opportunity for Omani officials to debrief the U.S. and other Western officials on Iran's thinking as Tehran planned its response to the Damascus attack.

And while the current crisis in the Middle East is of a magnitude that Oman alone cannot address, the ability of trusted intermediaries such as Oman – along with Qatar and Switzerland – to keep open channels of communication is crucial to minimizing the possibility of any accidental escalation on the Iranian side, and to complementing U.S. and European dialogue with Israeli leaders in the quest to find a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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Source: Associated Press

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