The Gulf State That Might Get Israel and Iran Talking

Despite the risks of war between the U.S. and Iran, a narrow diplomatic opportunity exists. But it is not between Washington and Tehran, but rather between Jerusalem and Tehran

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Benjamin Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman; the two met in Muscat on October 26, 2018.
Benjamin Netanyahu with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman; the two met in Muscat on October 26, 2018. Credit: GPO via Reuters
Alex Vatanka
Sigurd Neubauer
Joel Rubin

As President Donald Trump has flip-flopped over whether to negotiate with Iran, Tehran fears that his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign was never about “renegotiating” the 2015 nuclear deal. Instead, the Iranians see Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement only as a pretext to pursue the strategic objective of toppling the Islamist regime.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, clearly cannot yet rely on Trump’s expressed desire for direct, and unconditional, talks. Indeed, several members of Trump’s administration have long-established track records of wanting to topple the regime Khamenei has spearheaded since 1989.

Meanwhile, as the sanctions have paralyzed the Iranian economy — with Iran losing something like $130 million per day in loss of oil income thanks to the U.S. sanctions — Tehran has had to look for ways to regain leverage vis-à-vis those it sees as leading the effort to isolate it. Tehran does not want sanctions and a bleeding Iran to become the new normal, and is looking for ways to hit back to overturn this reality.

For example, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are in some kind of loose understanding with Iran, have suddenly increased the number of drone strikes targeting Saudi and Emirati strategic infrastructure. This is clearly part of Iran’s own messaging campaign about its asymmetric capabilities in the event that it is drawn into a military conflict with Washington and its regional allies.

Israel, of course, could easily be drawn into a regional war given Hezbollah’s own capabilities in Lebanon and Iranian-controlled militias operating in Syria. And yet despite the ever-increasing risks of war between the United States and Iran, a narrow diplomatic opportunity exists. It is not between Washington and Tehran, but rather between Jerusalem and Tehran through Omani mediation.

Last October, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a surprise visit to Muscat. The two leaders discussed Iran throughout the night, without aides present.

Interestingly, Tehran decided not to criticize Muscat for hosting Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials such as the head of the Mossad. The reason is simple: Tehran genuinely appreciates its good ties with Muscat and does not want to sacrifice them easily.

As the only Gulf state to actually maintain close ties with Iran, Oman recognizes that it is in a unique position to defuse regional tensions. Sultan Qaboos is setting himself up as a potential interlocutor between Israel and Iran — which Netanyahu considers to be Israel’s archenemy — but also between Tehran and Washington.

Wearing the uniform of the Revolutionary Guards, Iranian lawmakers chant "Death to America" during an open session of parliament in Tehran, April 9, 2019.Credit: Hamidreza Rahel,AP

In light of Trump’s decision last year to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal and his consequential inability to reengage Tehran — which partially explains the present state of U.S.-Iran tensions — Sultan Qaboos may be betting that the route to U.S.-Iran détente may run via Jerusalem, by engaging Netanyahu directly on Iran.

Because of Trump’s character and methods of governing — often by tweet — Iran understands that while Washington is imposing the sanctions on Iran, the real diplomatic dance is between Khamenei and Netanyahu.

While Iran only responded to then-President Barack Obama’s diplomatic overtures after the crippling sanctions the previous U.S. administration imposed, Tehran has proven that despite the strategic threat it presents to Washington and Jerusalem, it is a rational actor even if it is designated as the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

But Israel’s ascent as the Middle East’s strongest power is also tied to Saudi Arabia’s inability to effectively counter Iran in Iraq, Syria and even Yemen, where it has instead been enmeshed in a disastrous proxy war. This, coupled with the fact that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are more concerned with relegating their manufactured crisis with Qatar, has reduced Riyadh’s standing to strategic bystander as it instead has to reckon with the fallout over the Jamal Khashoggi murder.

An off-ramp for everyone?

So far, Tehran has not targeted any U.S. strategic assets in the Persian Gulf or Iraq (with the exception of the June 20 downing of the U.S. drone), even if it has carried out limited attacks on oil tankers and targeted Saudi and Emirati strategic infrastructure. The fact that no U.S. personnel have been attacked is a message in itself.

While critics of Netanyahu frequently paint him as a fearmonger with a plan to manipulate international opinion on Iran, it is important to remember that the two countries have had an adversarial relationship over the past 40 years. Given the size of Iran — with a population of over 80 million — and its region-wide reach and influence, the trajectory chosen by the leadership in Tehran matters to Israel and its security. Israeli angst about Iran’s nuclear intentions should be seen in this context.

Another fact, however, is that Iranian-Israeli animus is not naturally bound to be permanent. In fact, below the surface, in recent months officials in both countries have lowered their all-too-well-known contentious rhetoric — a possible signal that a far less ominous prospect might await Iranian-Israeli relations.

Unlike when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power in 1979, hoping his hard-line stance on Israel would turn the Islamic Republic into the vanguard of the Islamic world, today its “resistance” narrative has brought it international isolation and the toughest sanctions a nation has ever seen. Iranian pragmatists have over time — especially during the period between 2005 and 2013 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president — come to realize that Tehran’s stance on the Israel question has not only become failed policy, but reduced the descendants of the great Persian civilization into an international pariah.

With heightened U.S. military pressure on Iran, the space for Oman to mediate, pass messages and reduce the chance of lethal miscalculations is even more important as tensions between Washington and Tehran continue to rise.

It is also clear that given Trump’s blanket political support for Netanyahu, any political accommodations reached between Israel and Iran (through Omani mediation) will most likely be accepted by the Trump administration.

Adding to Netanyahu’s enhanced international standing and upper hand regarding Tehran is this week’s trilateral summit in Jerusalem between the national security advisers of the United States, Russia and Israel. The strong Russia-Israel relationship, coupled with Moscow’s pragmatic relationship with Tehran, could also serve as an important factor in reducing Israel-Iran tensions in the interim while a prospective Israel-Iran diplomatic process spearheaded by Oman plays out.

These dynamics suggest that in the event that Iran could adopt a rational or even pragmatic approach toward Israel, away from its current destructive policies, a new era for the Middle East could be established.

And Netanyahu, who is a well-known critic of Iran, now has an opportunity — if it’s offered and he takes it — to be the Israeli leader who helps transform the Middle East for the better.

Alex Vatanka is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute (Twitter: @AlexVatanka); Joel Rubin is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Obama Administration (Twitter: @JoelMartinRubin) and Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst based in Washington (Twitter: @SigiMideast).

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