Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited the Iranian capital Tehran on Monday, two days after a telephone call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and sultan Qaboos of Oman.
The Omani minister met his Iranian counterpart and government officials, according to Iran’s official press agency IRNA, though it did not elaborate beyond saying that they had “discussed bilateral relations and regional issues”.
Hours after the visit, US President Donald Trump tweeted that his country was not seeking negotiations with Iran and was still waiting for a call from Tehran asking to negotiate.
“Iran will call us if and when they are ever ready. In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse – very sad for the Iranian people,” Trump’s tweet said.
However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country would not negotiate under economic siege and military threats.
“I favour talks and diplomacy, but under current conditions, I do not accept it, as today’s situation is not suitable for talks and our choice is resistance only,” Rouhani said, the IRNA reported.
Such statements indicate that an effort by Oman and others is underway to get the two sides in the escalating crisis in the Gulf to the negotiating table. Developments on the ground show that each party is trying to set out its positions prior to the anticipated negotiations.
Just days after the telephone call between Pompeo and the sultan of Oman, Saudi air defences shot down a group of missiles over Taif and Jeddah in what seemed to be a brazen act of stubbornness by Iran.
Though the missiles were from Yemen, they were provided by Iran and launched by its proxy Houthi militia. The fact that they were used to target Saudi Arabia is mounting proof of what the Coalition for the Support of Legitimacy in Yemen has been saying all along: that Iran is meddling in its neighbours’ affairs and arming militias to destabilise the Gulf countries.
Many in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, see the attack sabotaging commercial vessels in Emirati waters in the Gulf of Oman and the drone attack on a Saudi pipeline last week as deliberate acts carried out by Iran, even if they were executed by proxy militias in Yemen or elsewhere.
The Arab Gulf countries have increased their marine patrols in the Gulf and other territorial waters to guard against any further possible attacks that could threaten vital trade routes and affect the safety of international maritime transport.
Some commentators have expected the US, with its naval and other military build-up in the region, to respond to the Iranian-backed attacks. Yet, it seems that all the parties are practising restraint for now.
Official statements from all the parties say that none of them wants war, but all are prepared to defend themselves. As the US has the final call, the Iranians will understand that there are limits to US restraint.
US President Donald Trump used Twitter to tell Tehran that threatening America would mean “finishing Iran” last week. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again,” he said in a tweet.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif replied to Trump’s tweet by saying that the US sanctions would not end Iran and asking America to “try respect” rather than threats.
Despite the heightened tensions in the region, many Gulf and Western analysts agree that the ultimate goal is negotiations.
Pompeo’s call to Sultan Qaboos of Oman was seen as an overture to open the door to negotiations. The official US state department announcement of the contact said that the “secretary and the sultan also discussed Iranian threats to the Gulf region more broadly.”
However, as Muscat was the venue of the secret Iranian-American negotiations that led to the nuclear deal with the West in 2015 (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPA), from which the US withdrew last year, there is now speculation that Oman might be mediating between Washington and Tehran.
Yet, the Houthi missiles on Sunday may have poured cold water on that assumption. There have also been rumours that Qatar might be trying to play a mediation role, but as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are still boycotting Qatar, there is little likelihood that Doha will be a negotiation venue.
The Iranians seem to be in favour of a venue like Iraq, but the Americans are reluctant, noting the huge Iranian influence in the country. As one Gulf analyst put it, “the negotiating table is ready, no matter where, but it’s up to Iran to abandon its aggressive approach and sit down at the table to avoid a catastrophic war.”
One Western source in Beirut hinted that a back-channel between the Americans and the Iranians had been active for some time, even before the latest escalation after the American decision to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero by cancelling sanctions waivers granted to countries importing Iranian oil like China, India and Turkey.
The talks are not restricted to the Iranian nuclear programme or Iran’s missile development but will also likely cover issues including curbing Iranian proxy militias like Hashd in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Israel also has concerns about the Iranian military presence in Syria.
Though negotiations are the aim, the rising tension threatens the possibility of a “war by mistake,” as some European officials warned recently. But the US and its Gulf allies can easily hold out against any Iranian provocations, waiting for the latest sanctions to “bite into Iranian arrogance and force Tehran to come to its senses,” as the analyst put it.
Over the last couple of weeks, Iran has tried to persuade oil-importers in Asia to avoid the sanctions, but with no success so far. Many are expecting Iranian oil production to go down to half a million barrels per day (bpd) from its April level of 2.6 million bpd.
In 2017, Iranian oil production stood at more than 3.5 million bpd.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hope for negotiations in the Gulf