x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Oman's Sultan Qaboos visits Iran for mediation

Visit raises hopes that Oman's strong ties with the West and Tehran could ease negotiations over nuclear issues.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) greets Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said at the presidential palace in Tehran on Sunday.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (right) greets Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said at the presidential palace in Tehran on Sunday.

TEHRAN // Iran welcomed Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said yesterday in a visit that raised hopes that Omani mediation could help ease tensions between Iran and western powers over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Sultan Qaboos was scheduled to focus on bilateral and international affairs during his three-day visit. In the past, Oman has played a mediating role in helping to help release Iranian and American nationals from both countries' prisons. In the run-up to the current visit, Iranian newspapers raised speculation that Oman could repeat such mediation in the continuing dispute over Iran's nuclear programme.

But Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, denied any knowledge of such an agenda for the visit.

"We are not aware if the sultan of Oman is conveying a message," Mr Zarif said. "We are ready to discuss various issues he might be interested in raising."

The pro-reform Iranian daily newspaper Bahar reported the sultan might discuss easing financial sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe on Iran in return for the country decreasing uranium enrichment activity. Iran has had no access to foreign revenue since of an oil-and-banking embargo was imposed on the country because of its nuclear programme.

Western governments suspect Iran's nuclear activities have military dimensions, while Iran has said it is pursuing only peaceful aims such as power generation and cancer treatment.

In May, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visited Oman and other countries in the Arabian Gulf region to push for the creation of an integrated defence network against the alleged threat posed by Iran.

Oman has had good relations with Europe and the US while enjoying historic ties with Iran. It is one of the few Gulf countries that maintains friendly ties with the Islamic republic. The visit marked the first by a foreign leader to Iran since the centrist Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, took office about three weeks ago.

Mehran Kamrava, the director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, said Sultan Qaboos's visit indicated Iran was coming out of the "isolationist mode" it had adopted under Mr Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was known for bellicose rhetoric on the international stage.

"Oman is one of the few Arab countries with which Iran has had consistent and regular good relations," Mr Kamrava said. "Whether the Sultan of Oman is bearing a message or not is something we won't know until somewhat later, but certainly countries such as Oman could play a very important intermediary role between Iran and the US."

During a greeting ceremony, Mr Rouhani urged both sides to apply efforts to "deepen and boost bilateral cooperation more than before".

The Omani sultan responded that his country is ready to help create trade routes through Iran between Oman and Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Annual Iran-Oman trade stands at Dh917.5 million.

Both countries also are partners in controlling the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the international oil supply passes.

Sultan Qaboos last visited Iran in 2009, three decades after his only other trip in the mid-1970s, when Iranian forces helped him dismantle Soviet-backed Marxist guerrillas who sought independence in the southern Omani province of Dhofar.

* With additional reporting by Reuters