WASHINGTON -- After the last few years of threats building up between the United States and Iran over its nuclear ambitions, a window of opportunity for a peaceful negotiation appeared to open. Overnight, it seemed, American Secretary of State John Kerry was all over Europe and the Middle East, giving flesh to what formerly were only hopes.
At the time, no one seemed to know exactly how the still-tentative rapprochement occurred. It happened, and that was that! Yet now we can begin to know how a small, but promisingly progressive sultanate that faces the Arabian Sea below Saudi Arabia has diplomatically paved the way for what may well turn out to be the signature foreign policy act of the Obama presidency.
The stories are now beginning to be known: How American diplomats slipped secretly from their planes in Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, over the last two years to negotiate with Oman's popular leader, Sultan Qaboos, and his cabinet. How the sultan himself privately intervened with Tehran to get the Iranians to talk to the "evil" West. How it worked out that Oman's diplomacy also became the link between the U.S. and other Arab states opposed to Iran.
History has marked Oman, a beautiful landmass of great deserts sweeping up from the coast to jagged mountains, filled with tribal villages, for exactly this specific and unusual task.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Oman had its own empire, from Mombasa in present-day Kenya to the isle of Zanzibar, through today's 1,000-mile-long Oman and to Baluchistan, now part of Pakistan.
The Iranians, or Persians, just across the Strait of Hormuz, have deep historical ties with Oman. The country's falaj system, or specially built aqueducts for carrying water, was built by the Persians, as were many of the elaborate forts in the interior, and the Iranians sent soldiers to fight for the sultan and against the communist threat from South Yemen in the 1960s.
So when the Iranians began threatening to build a nuclear bomb in the last two decades, and Israel was threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear plants, the Omanis were the ideal people to step in.
Sultan Qaboos, moreover, is quietly pro-Western, having been educated at Sandhurst and having served with the British forces in Germany. He loves classical Western music and has now built one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world. Moreover, starting with nothing when he overthrew his retrograde father in 1970, he has built Oman, with fewer than 2 million people, into one of the most successful and progressive countries in the world.
In one of the few articles on Oman's help in the initial Iranian nuclear deal in November, The Wall Street Journal wrote late in December:
"Oman's ancient capital of Muscat has served as a setting for meetings that have advanced the global diplomacy leading to November's deal, U.S. and Iranian diplomats said.
"Little understood is the extent to which Oman's monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, and his court's ministers and economic officials have personally steered the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement."
As to the 73-year-old sultan himself, the article went on to say that "Aides to Sultan Qaboos said the British-educated monarch views himself as a mediator between competing sides in the Middle East's conflicts." The article quoted a senior Arab diplomat who knows the monarch well as describing him as "an idealist in that to a significant extent his policy-making is driven by ethical considerations."
In my five interviews with the sultan, who impressed me as one of the most charming yet serious leaders I have met, I was constantly amused by his wit and his desire to do everything right for his people. He knows exactly what he wants -- we were talking, for instance, about girls being allowed to attend the university -- but he also knows how pragmatically to embrace the steps necessary to achieve his goals.
Early on, he had devised highly workable policies. For instance, you will seldom find any American or other Western troops actually in Oman anywhere. His national security, rather, is to have foreign troops "over the horizon," that is, where they can be based and yet not seen by the people as a potentially anti-foreigner presence. He almost invented the Gulf Cooperation Council, to have the Persian Gulf monarchies work together in development and security.
Robert D. Kaplan, in his fine book "Monsoon," quotes a Western diplomat as calling Qaboos the only leader in the region you can "truly call a Renaissance man" and says, himself, "There really is no ruler in the Middle East quite like Sultan Qaboos."
In short, the United States has a wonderful ally in this royal leader. He reminds us of our better selves and is making it possible for us to accomplish our better intentions.
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