Wikileaks: Oman, US missiles and Iran

Amid all the excitement about the king of Saudi Arabia urging the Americans to bomb Iran, the Wikileaks documents show Sultan Qaboos of Oman taking a much cooler view.

In a two-hour meeting with Admiral William Fallon of Centcom last February, the Sultan remarked that the Iranians are "not fools," and Tehran knows there are "certain lines it cannot cross" (ie, direct confrontation with the United States). 

Nevertheless, the Sultan shared Admiral Fallon's frustration with Iranian interference in Iraq, saying that Iranian meddling abroad was "almost a game" to the regime in Tehran, and that Iran's leaders would have to stop this practice if Iran wanted to "join the world as a noble country".

Oman favours negotiation with Iran rather than military action but seems happy to shelter under the American umbrella, so long as the Omani public don't realise that it is doing so. The Sultan is quoted as saying: "I must say that as long as (the US) is on the horizon, we have nothing to fear." 

Like many Arab states, Oman has two versions of its military relationship with the United States: one for public consumption, and another one that it likes to keep private.

That pretence was jeopardised in January, according to a Wikileaks document, when the New York Times published an article headed: "US Speeding Up Missile Defenses in Persian Gulf". 

The story said that Patriot missile batteries would be set up in four more Gulf countries besides Saudi Arabia (which already has them): Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait – presumably to defend them against any attack from Iran.

A syndicated version of the article, though not the version on the NYT's website, also included a sentence saying: "Oman, which has always been sensitive about perceptions that it is doing US bidding, has also been approached, but there is no deployment of Patriots there, according to US officials." 

Oman initially denied having been approached. Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi, of the Omani foreign ministry issued a statement saying, "the Sultanate's position on such matters is firm and that it does not ... enter into alliances or axis (sic) against any state." He stressed that Oman "does not allow its territory to be used to carry out any military operations against any country in the region". 

The US embassy in Muscat also received "a pointed inquiry" from the Sultan, apparently worried about the repercussions of the NYT's report.

The Americans then provided evidence that discussions about Patriot missiles had indeed taken place, though the Sultan was apparently unaware of them because of a "lack of lateral coordination within the [government of Oman]." 

A comment at the end of the US embassy's note says:

The strength of Oman's immediate reaction, and the level at which it transpired, is reflective of the tremendous seriousness with which this matter is viewed by the GoO [government of Oman]. It is likely that one of the goals of Badr's media statement was to protect the US/Omani relationship, as any belief that the US would attempt to utilise Omani territory in this way could potentially cause a public backlash that would jeopardise other aspects of our relationship.

The deployment of Patriots to Oman, especially with the goal of countering the Iran threat, would run completely counter to Oman's publicly-stated foreign-policy objectives. 

Although they do not find the threat imminent, Iran is Oman's number one strategic threat; however, the GoO fundamentally believes the threat can be mitigated through careful management of the relationship. Therefore, the GoO works very deliberately to create a public perception of balance in its relationships with the US and Iran. 

Oman's security strategy of keeping a low public profile in general has been threatened by the attention brought by the NYT article, and the GoO is working to manage the message for the public.