Amidst the media craze and international raving on the recent P5+1 reverse sanctions deal with Iran, the global hegemon of the first-world powers has seemingly done it again. But behind the stern doors of the Iran deal lies the real key to the previously unsolvable Iran problem: the little-recognized, little-complimented country of Oman. A small kingdom trying to establish its seat at the Middle Eastís negotiation table, the country played a critical role in sealing the deal with the Iranian administration, as well as helping the Obama administration warm the cold feet of other Arab governments critical of the deal.
But what Omanís rallying really reveals is a surprising diplomatic trend, one that has gained more and more traction with the latest wave of international conflicts (think Central African Republic, Syria, and Thailand): the ability of smaller, more politically nuanced nation-states to exert significant leverage on deals much larger than them, and the subsequent diminution of the global communityís most prominent actors in the deal-making process.
Omanís recent activity with the Iran deal has some history: Sultan Qaboos, Omanís lavish and formidable ruler, has hosted secret backdoor meetings between top-level American and Iranian officials over the last two years in Muscat, a response to an American request for Omani brokerage in the touchy defrost of relations between the two countries. And though little is understood of the content of these backdoor meetings, what is apparent is that they have worked, and that Omanís public support of Obamaís campaign of rapprochement has softened enmity between Sunni-friendly regimes and Iran. Meanwhile, Franceís foreign minister Laurent Fabius finds his hardline stance rejected and decried by members of the international community starving for the historic deal Ė it seems that, in this case at least, the peculiar Omani-U.S. tag team has the upper hand.
The Sultanate of Oman has also had domestic troubles, and it seems unlikely that Washington would look to cooperate with such an insular country, one whose head has almost absolute power. But despite all of its ideological blemishes, Oman still remains an important ally for the United States and Iran, largely because its neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have had longstanding grudges against either or both parties.
The now-blossoming relationship germinated back in the 1970s, when Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sent troops to Oman to put down a tribal revolt against Sultan Qaboosí rule. Ties further gained traction when Oman declared neutrality during the Iran-Iraq War, when other Persian Gulf states provided financial support to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Moreover, Oman has constantly sought to resolve its neighborsí constant quarreling through United Nations-driven reconciliation. In one such instance, Omanís government paid US$1.5 million in bail to free American hikers detained in Iran by security forces in September of 2011, an act of kindness recognized and thanked for by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Just this year, Oman helped bring home Mojtaba Atarodi, arrested in Los Angeles on charges of purchasing equipment for Tehranís nuclear program. Having worked with the ugliest and stickiest situations of both sides, Omanís moral position in the negotiations seem to be at an all-time high. Its religious composition also lends itself to clear-minded diplomacy: with three-fourths of its population following the Ibadi school of Islam, distinct from both Sunni and Shiía sects, Oman is somewhat immune to the sectarian conflicts that plague its neighbor countries.
But whether Omanís positioning is out of genuine concern for its geopolitical environment or for its own self-interests remains shrouded in mystery. The countryís role has progressed past the nuclear question and sees its interests as aligned with those of its clients Ė namely, the Western dealmakers and Iranian officials who look to use Omanís isolated location as a carrot for its support of the deal. The sultanate has drafted a plan to construct a pipeline which would supply Iranian gas to Oman, plans which were suddenly halted by American sanctions. Given the warming of relations between Iran and the United States, Oman could benefit from the additional resources, as well as prospering from facilitated trade between both parties.
Especially given the growth-starved populations of those caught in the Arab Spring of 2011, Oman may in fact become the next prominent Gulf power, moving away from traditional hard powers such as size and military and towards more complex factors such as leverage in negotiations.† But until these prospective changes manifest, the Omani hand will continue to seem a generous one, contrasted against a backdrop of stern Arab rulers unfriendly to the West.
But while Omanís diplomatic trends are a small part of a larger global picture, they are a signal of what is to come in the next few years of international negotiations. Rolling back uranium deposits required a more in-depth solution that required local intermediaries to assist in negotiations, a situation that contrasts itself with the traditional Western funding catchall scheme that ends up placing European dominants well above their developing counterparts in terms of international influence. Though its bordering countries are richer and stronger, Omanís neutralityóa lacking and much-demanded resource, second only to oil in the Middle Eastómay in fact define a new age for West-Near East interactions, one based not on post-colonial endorsements but rather on the creation of a, dare we say it, stable Middle East.
Conversely, more issues of prominence have become less focused on European aid and funding and have become more focused on longstanding regional ties, oftentimes looping in smaller countries new to the international scene. With this, of course, comes the rise of states like Oman, while Franceís intransigence, viewed both as unnecessary and futile, diminished the Israeli-backed French role in the talks. Egyptís current military situation is evident of the failures of large amounts of aid to bring about tangible changeósoon enough, the West may realize that diplomacy, not sponsorship, is most effective in handling complicated matters.
Coupled with the European Unionís own domestic woes, the direction of foreign policy will most likely see a shift in these larger countries. The old days of diplomatic hegemony among the UNís birthers may in fact be over. Who knows Ė one can only hope that the international community will fit its description as a truly global one within the next couple of decades. And the wishful can expect this to lead to more comprehensive and inclusive efforts on behalf of all nations in the region, a step towards the inclusive international community envisioned half a century prior.