Iran is making a play for new Gulf outreach with Oman and Qatar - analysis

Reading between the lines, it seems Oman is now the most important diplomatic country in the Middle East, at least in terms of being able to talk to Israel, Iran, the US and everyone else.

Oman's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, Iran July 27, 2019.  (photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE/WANA VIA REUTERS)
Oman's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran, Iran July 27, 2019.
(photo credit: NAZANIN TABATABAEE/WANA VIA REUTERS)
Iran wants to smooth things over in the Persian Gulf after more than six months of tensions. Its goal is to try to work with Oman to discuss a new regional framework, while also dangling carrots and waving sticks to the other powers across the strategic body of water. It has showed  its power through the Abqaiq attack on September 14 using drones and cruise missiles. Now, after leaks that showed Iran was behind the attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco facilities, Tehran is offering the carrot.
Iran has held three rounds of meetings with Oman’s Foreign Minister this year. In the latest discussions this week, it sought to push something called the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, given the acronym HOPE in English. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met his Omani counterpart Yusuf bin Alawi. Alawi had recently met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Warsaw in February. The Omani had also said Israel needs to feel accepted in the region in a talk in Jordan in April.
Supposedly Bin Alawi was talking about Yemen with Pompeo. Reading between the lines, it seems Oman is now the most important diplomatic country in the Middle East, at least in terms of being able to talk to Israel, Iran, the US and everyone else.
Iran has a multi-fold goal. It is blustering about getting Europe to help it around sanctions, supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad against Israel, and trying to work with the Taliban.
It’s trying to get a new Iraqi Prime Minister to its liking appointed. And it wants to get precision guidance to Hezbollah and entrench in Syria. But it has another goal in the Gulf.
Since May, Iran was put on the back foot by the Trump administration’s threats. It responded by mining four tankers in May and two tankers in June. Then it shot down a large US drone.
Trump called off airstrikes in response. So Iran did other things. It launched attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure twice and pushed the Houthi rebels it supports to do more.
Then it planned a massive attack for September 14. This came after it had sought to heat up threats to Israel in August. It had also likely instructed militias in Iraq to fire mortars and rockets at US bases. Unsurprisingly more projectiles reportedly fell on December 3, just as Iran was pushing a new peace concept in the Gulf. Iran usually does this. It uses the carrot and stick at the same time. For instance it had the Japanese Prime Minister in Iran on June 12 when it launched an attack on a Japanese tanker. Not coincidence. And what a surprise, Iran has just asked Japan if its President Hassan Rouhani might make a visit soon.
Now Iran has plans for the Gulf. It wants to hold a joint naval exercise with Russia and China in the Gulf of Oman. Meanwhile the US has its own maritime security approach and France is also bolstering its Gulf role, according to a speech by French Defense Minister Florence Parly late last month.
Mehr News in Iran reports that Rouhani has indicated Iran could patch things up with Saudi Arabia. Rouhani links this to economic relations with Oman. It also wants its HOPE coalition to go forward. Iran calls this “collective regional security.”
Regional Iranian efforts have big regional implications. Turkey is optimistic. TRT, the pro-government broadcaster says that Qatar is preparing for the upcoming Gulf Cooperation Council meeting with optimism. In 2017 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke relations with Qatar and condemned it. Turkey sent troops to Qatar. Now Turkey wants to improve its bases there. Ostensibly Turkey and Qatar oppose Saudi Arabia  and support the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas. They are on different sides of some conflicts. But Qatar is a key conduit to discussions with Iran. Qatar thinks a recent football match and some other indications might mean that it will be back in the tent soon with its Gulf neighbors. That would likely align with Iran’s initiative as well that progresses through Oman.
That could mean a larger deal to end the Yemen war. The Yemen war pits Saudi Arabia against Iranian-backed Houthis. They have carried out drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh wants the war to end. It has been holding talks though Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s pro-Saudi government in Yemen. He has his own problems with South Yemen separatists that rejected a Riyadh agreement on December 2, according to reports. But for Saudi the easiest thing would be to end this four year war and move on. It hasn’t won. The UAE is already showing it wants out. France24 reported that Saudi’s Crown Prince visited the UAE in late November to try to end the conflict. Saudi and the UAE are on the same side, but both understand Yemen has become a kind of quagmire.
Enter Iran. Iran can leverage Yemen to try to bring the Gulf states to some kind of compromise. Maybe. That is at least what Iran things after its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “took our the swords” during the Abqaiq operation. Now Iran has seemingly leaked its role in the operation. The message: We can do this again, don’t  trust the Americans, they can’t protect you. Of course the US has a different message. It sent Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Bahrain on a four-day trip in late November to show the US commitment. France was nonplussed, telling the Americans that their failure to respond to Iran would lead to more aggression and that the US was “disengaging” from the region. Iran was watching, rushing to meet the Omanis and jump into the Gulf for their HOPE initiative.
For Israel, which views the Iranian threat with utmost concern, an Iranian initiative in the Gulf would be aimed at prying away countries that share interests with Jerusalem. Iran knows this. Tehran hopes for the best in coming months. If not, it may bring out more sticks than carrots.


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