Richard J. Schmierer
Ambassador Schmierer served as U.S. ambassador to Oman (2009-12) and is a member of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council.
Recent reports of the assistance provided by the Sultanate of Oman to secure the release of Americans being held in Yemen reminded me of the helpful role this unique country plays in the affairs of the world's most troubled region and its potential to help address future challenges. That sentiment was also rekindled by the July announcement of the Iran nuclear deal, which recalled the early days that helped set the stage for such an agreement.
In July 2009, three young Americans were detained by Iranian border guards while hiking in hills near Sulimaniya, a town close to the Iranian border in the Kurdistan Regional Government area of Iraq. At the time, I was the deputy assistant secretary for Iraq in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Less than two months later, in September 2009, I arrived in Muscat, Oman's capital, to begin a three-year tour as the U.S. ambassador to the sultanate. It was clear from the beginning that this was a case of young Americans unknowingly being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To gain their release, the U.S. government sought out allies who might be able to assist; as the ambassador, I raised the issue with Omani officials.
As those familiar with the sultanate are aware, the country follows its own path in foreign policy. This made Oman particularly suitable for engagement with Iran on the issue of the hikers.
• Oman has a singular history with Iran, different from that of the other Arab states. As one example, in the early 1970s, Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi came to Oman's aid when the sultanate faced a rebellion in the southern part of the country, sending 4,000 troops to assist. Iran lost more than 700 soldiers in the conflict, a sacrifice still widely remembered and appreciated by Omanis.
• Oman and Iran share the strategic waterway known as the Strait of Hormuz. At the strait's narrowest point, the two countries are only 21 miles apart. Moreover, all of its navigable sea lanes lie in Oman's territorial waters. With 30 percent of the world's seaborne oil exports passing through the strait, Oman has a responsibility as well as a strong interest in working with Iran to ensure that this strategic waterway remains open.
• During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Oman ruled over a maritime empire that included outposts around much of the Indian Ocean littoral, from South Asia to East Africa, including the port of Bandar Abbas in present-day Iran. This has led Omanis to have an outward worldview and a predisposition to engage with and understand the perspectives of others. It also resulted in Oman's becoming the most ethnically diverse country in the Arab world.
• Under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos, Oman has pursued a policy of peaceful coexistence with all of its neighbors, including Iran. As one example of this policy, Oman did not take sides in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, unlike other Arab states, which supported Iraq.
• Perhaps most important in the context of the present-day tensions between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam, Oman is a Muslim-majority country in which the predominant Islamic sect is Ibadism. The Ibadis separated from other elements of Islam prior to the Sunni-Shia split. Oman is the only country in the world in which Ibadism is the majority Islamic sect.
All of these facts made me optimistic that Oman, perhaps alone among the Arab countries, might be helpful in the effort to gain the release of the three detained Americans. Indeed, following my initial approach to Omani officials concerning the hikers, the Omanis began to quietly engage the Iranians on the issue. The Omanis quickly discovered that the Iranians were deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions. In the early months of the Omani effort, it became clear that the continued holding of these Americans was something many in the Iranian leadership wanted to resolve. At the same time, however, the Iranians were sensitive to any sign that could be taken as acknowledgment that the Iranian accusations against the Americans were unfounded.
To build trust, we worked with the Omanis to undertake small but symbolic steps to demonstrate goodwill and to convince the Iranians we were approaching the matter of the detained Americans solely as a humanitarian issue and not to posture politically against Iran. One confidence-building measure was to look for ways to streamline visa procedures for the thousands of Iranian students at U.S. colleges and universities. Another was to facilitate access to Iranian citizens incarcerated in American prisons. At one point, I met with the elderly mother of one such Iranian to assure her that she need not fear traveling to the United States. According to the Omanis, these gestures were well-received by the Iranians.
We also had to address the perception by some on the Iranian side that they could link the American detainees to Iranians incarcerated in the United States. When the Iranians were pressing the Omanis on one particular case, I provided the Omani interlocutor with the publicly available records on the case involved. He shared those records with Iranian officials, records documenting that the Iranian defendant's trial had been fair, the evidence convincing, and the sentencing appropriate. At the end of the day, with Omani facilitation, we were successful in gaining the release of the detained Americans, one in September 2010 and the other two in September 2011.
This experience underscored that, while there is longstanding mistrust on the part of Iran towards the United States, if Iran is approached in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and Iranian interlocutors are given evidence and information that help dispel misplaced fears and establish trust, Iran is prepared to act pragmatically and on the basis of enlightened self-interest.
Such considerations are germane to the Iran nuclear deal. Although the successful effort to obtain the release of the American hikers being held in Tehran did not involve direct U.S.-Iranian engagement, the Omani facilitation of that effort — and the confidence-building measures which it included — engendered an optimism that this success could be built upon. Thus, the Omanis quietly began to explore the possibility of facilitating a dialogue between Iran and the West in other areas, including the nuclear issue.
The timing for such an effort was fortuitous. From the early days of his presidency, Barack Obama had signaled a change in the U.S. approach to Iran. In March 2009, he sent a message to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian holiday of Nowruz in which he called for a U.S. approach to Iran "that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." His use in that message of the country's official name — the Islamic Republic of Iran — rather than referring to the Iranian "regime," signaled a shift in the U.S. approach away from what had been seen as a policy of seeking regime change. Around the same time, the president also sent a private message to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While neither outreach effort produced any clear, positive response, these efforts did signal a change in Washington's approach to Tehran and laid the groundwork for possible U.S.-Iranian engagement.
At the outset, the Omanis deliberately played somewhat of a devil's-advocate role on behalf of the Iranians, a tactic intended to ensure that we on the American side fully understood and appreciated the depth of Iranian mistrust towards the United States. The Omanis pointed out, for example, that if one looked at the region from the Iranian perspective, one saw a potentially threatening array of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, both on Iran's border. Just a few years earlier, the United States had invaded one of these neighbors, Iraq, and deposed its leader. In this context, the Omanis noted the Iranian perception that the United States had not clearly abandoned its policy of seeking regime change in Tehran. Then, as the Omanis also reminded us, there were Iran's historical grievances against the United States: support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the policy of dual containment against Iraq and Iran in the 1990s, and the characterization of Iran as a member of an "Axis of Evil" in 2002.
On the nuclear issue itself, the Omanis pointed out that Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which — while it precludes signatories from developing or seeking a nuclear weapon — gives them the right to have a nuclear capability for peaceful purposes. Moreover, as the Omanis also pointed out, the NPT is silent on the issue of whether signatories have a "right" to the domestic enrichment of uranium. The Omani perception was that Iranian "dignity" and sense of sovereignty would cause the Iranians, whatever other compromises they might be willing to make to resolve the international community's concern regarding their nuclear program, to insist on maintaining a domestic nuclear enrichment program.
I had had concerns from the beginning that the gap between what was certain to be Iranian insistence on its "right" to a domestic uranium enrichment capability, and the concerns of the international community that Iran could not be trusted with such a capability, would lead to a deadlock and thus the failure of any effort to engage Iran in seeking to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically. Now, several years later, the restart with Iran that President Obama had signaled early in his administration has helped lead to an agreement between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — China, France, Russia, the UK and the United States — together with Germany) and the Islamic Republic of Iran to restrict and monitor Iran's nuclear program and ensure that it is limited to peaceful purposes. As a diplomat, particularly one who was involved in the initial engagement that ultimately produced the deal, I was pleasantly surprised with this successful outcome.
Much credit goes to the P5+1 negotiating team for finding a formula that allows Iran to retain a limited enrichment program while providing the means to ensure that this capability cannot be surreptitiously redirected towards a weaponization effort. The monitoring and inspection regime, and the IAEA safeguards the agreement provides for, if properly implemented, effectively preclude such an Iranian effort.
One frequent criticism of these safeguards — the failure of the P5+1 team to achieve "anywhere, anytime" inspections for all locations in Iran — provides an interesting window into the challenge faced by the negotiators. The inspection regime involves two elements, one that applies to Iran's "declared" nuclear sites, and one that pertains to sites that are not declared but at some point in the future come to trigger suspicion on the part of the international community about possible nuclear-related activity.
For the declared nuclear sties, Iran has agreed to ongoing, 24/7 monitoring, an arrangement unprecedented for a nuclear-inspection regime — in effect, "anytime, anywhere" access. For locations that in the future come to raise suspicions, the agreement calls for Iran to resolve them to the satisfaction of the international community, including by potentially allowing on-site inspections within a 24-day period.
What is generally overlooked by those concerned with such a lag time between the airing and the resolution of those suspicions is the fact of Iranian sovereignty. As a sovereign nation, Iran would be unlikely to ever agree to allow the international community to send representatives to any location they choose with no prior notice or restrictions on when and where — based on a suspicion by someone in the international community regarding some activity they purport to have observed. The only time a country has ever agreed to relinquish its sovereignty to such an extent has been in the case of a military defeat. That the P5+1 negotiators did not get Iran to agree to such a provision in the agreement should come as no surprise.
The other element of the agreement that has elicited somewhat surprising controversy is the 15-year timeframe for some of the inspection and monitoring provisions, even as the agreement does commit Iran, in principle, to forgo pursuit of a nuclear weapon in perpetuity. Again, as a diplomat, I applaud the achievement of a 15-year commitment on the part of Iran guaranteeing that the country is precluded from developing or obtaining a nuclear weapon. In the realm of diplomacy, 15 years is an eternity. Moreover, if concerns regarding Iranian nuclear intentions and activities still exist as the 2030 expiration of some elements of the inspection regime approaches, the international community can raise these concerns and work toward an extension or other arrangement to address them. Just as concerns regarding Iran's nuclear intentions triggered the united international response that produced the current agreement, any continuing concerns in the years leading up to the expiration of certain inspection provisions would likely have the same effect.
In the immediate aftermath of the July 14, 2015, signing of the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran (officially, the "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action"), President Obama granted an interview to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. The president acknowledged the need to take into account the U.S. history with Iran in any effort to seek to modify its unhelpful behavior in the region:
[E]ven with your adversaries, I do think you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we knew he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative.
With the nuclear agreement now set for implementation, there is great interest in Iran's choices. Will Iran use this watershed event to seek to reduce its isolation from the international community by changing its unhelpful behavior in the region, or will it apply the benefits it receives from the deal — a lifting of international sanctions and access to currently frozen assets — to maintain or perhaps even increase such behavior? President Obama has gone to great lengths to underscore that the value of the agreement does not hinge on the prospects of improved Iranian behavior. There are, however, a number of developments, many of which trace back to Obama's changed approach to Iran and the region, that could help sway Iran to follow a more helpful path.
THE ARAB SPRING
One such development was the Arab Spring of 2011. The popular uprisings, which began in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread throughout much of the Arab world early in the following year, initially led to some positive changes for the people of the region. The departure of autocrats from power in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt inspired hope for democratic change throughout the Middle East. U.S. support for such change signaled to the people in the region that we stood with their efforts to have their grievances addressed.
The events of the Arab Spring suggested that persistent shortcomings in the region would finally be confronted. The economic malaise caused by crony capitalism, corruption, bloated public sectors, and state-dominated economies was stifling economic growth and denying the large youth cohort economic opportunity. Moreover, lack of accountability, deficits in the rule of law, restrictions on personal freedoms, and weak or non-existent civil-society institutions were undermining government responsiveness. The U.S. support for reform evinced during the Arab Spring showed that Washington was not in lockstep with autocratic rulers in the Arab world. One potential outcome from this course of events was an Iranian perception of a distancing by the United States from Iran's Arab antagonists.
As the intervening years have shown, the potential of early 2011 was never realized. In fact, many of the countries of the region have regressed in the period since then. Most disastrous has been Syria, whose people demonstrated peacefully for better governance and incurred the wrath of an Al-Assad regime that to this day is waging all-out war against them. A peaceful political transition in Yemen — orchestrated by painstaking diplomacy on the part of the Gulf Cooperation Council with the support of the major Western nations — was undone by the machinations of the country's former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in collusion with the Houthi community. Libya remains in chaos, with two competing groups claiming to be the country's legitimate government. Egypt, having gone through the disastrous Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohammed Morsi, now finds itself led by yet another strongman, Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi.
The Gulf states, while using their record-high proceeds from oil and gas exports to increase educational, employment and other opportunities for their citizens, have, in some cases at least, rolled back progress in freedom of the press and assembly and individual rights. This state of affairs was tacitly referred to by President Obama in the Tom Friedman interview: "… since the Arab Spring started to turn into more of an Arab Winter, … you weep for the children of this region, … the ordinary Iranian youth, or Saudi youth or Kuwaiti youth who are asking themselves, 'Why is it that we don't have the same prospects that some kid in Finland, Singapore, China, Indonesia, the United States (has)?'"
THE "PIVOT TO ASIA"
A second development that has affected perceptions of the U.S. approach to the region came later in 2011, when President Obama announced, in a November address to the Australian parliament, a new policy initiative, subsequently dubbed "the pivot to Asia." Obama described it as follows: "After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region."
For those of us heading U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East at the time, this pivot triggered an effort to reassure our regional partners that the change in strategic focus would not come at the expense of our Arab friends and allies. While this was certainly the case, taken together with other international developments — the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the declining levels of America's imported energy needs, and U.S. concerns about the direction the region had taken in the aftermath of the Arab Spring — there was an understandable tendency among the region's leaders to over-interpret the pivot. Was it a signal of Washington's readiness to leave Middle East issues to regional players and regional solutions, and for the United States to stand down from playing as active a role in the region's conflicts?
THE CHANGING GLOBAL ENERGY MARKET
A third development affecting perceptions of the U.S. level of engagement in the Middle East was the recent seismic shift in the global energy market. One of the more memorable experiences during my time as ambassador in Oman was attending a symposium on developments in U.S. and international energy production. The event took place in 2010, when oil prices were hovering near $100 per barrel, and the oil-producing countries of the Gulf, including Oman, were enjoying robust revenues from their energy exports.
The symposium featured a presentation by an oil-market expert from a major American bank. This was in the early days of the shale-oil boom, and the presenter laid out the projected course of the domestic U.S. energy market, with the likely prospect of a significant increase in U.S. domestic oil production and the attendant major decrease in dependence on imports. The presentation had a sobering effect on the audience, presaging what would become a significant psychological transformation among Gulf leaders. They began to perceive that U.S. interests in, and thus its commitment to, the Gulf states would decline as the United States found itself more and more energy self-sufficient.
These three developments affecting perceptions of the U.S. approach to the Middle East occurred in the context of a policy stance by President Obama dating from his earliest days in office: that he will not be quick to commit U.S. forces to engage in internal matters in the Middle East. As he has said on many occasions, he sees himself as having been elected to end two of America's longest wars — those in Iraq and Afghanistan — not to launch new interventions in the Middle East. The unwillingness to use U.S. troops in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and other areas where the Arab states have argued for the need to confront Iran or its proxies has been taken by at least some leaders in the region as an unwelcome change in U.S. security policy.
One outcome of this dynamic has been the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen to confront the military gains of the Houthis, a Shia community the Arabs view as a pawn of Iran. The United States has signaled considerable ambivalence towards this intervention. President Obama himself expressed skepticism in the Friedman interview concerning the closeness of the relationship alleged between the Houthis and the Iranians: "In some cases, for example, the Houthis in Yemen, I think Iranian involvement has been initially overstated." Such views have colored regional thinking and triggered displeasure by some Arab leaders.
The above considerations suggest a changed U.S. approach to the region; they also reflect a determination not to be drawn into the Sunni-Shia conflict. As President Obama put it in another comment he made to Friedman when discussing the Iran nuclear agreement: "America has to listen to our Sunni Arab allies, but also not fall into the trap of letting them blame every problem on Iran." He also told Friedman, "I have long believed that we have to encourage at least a lessening of the hostilities that currently exist between Shia and Sunni factions in the region."
These developments and the new U.S. approach to Iran could convince the leadership in Tehran to alter Iran's regional behavior. The changed circumstances in the region have created conditions for Iran to demonstrate whether its regional "meddling" has been driven by a determination to foment revolutionary upheaval in the Arab states towards the goal of achieving Iranian regional hegemony, or whether its behavior has been an attempt at a "forward defense": pushing back against Sunni Arab hostility by taking the fight to the Sunni states. If Iran does use the calming effect of the nuclear agreement and a less hostile U.S. posture as grounds to change its behavior and turn its focus (and resources) towards the country's massive economic-development needs the deal might, in the end, produce a secondary outcome: reducing the Sunni-Shia tension that is driving so much violence and suffering in the region.
In contemplating practical ways in which such a change might manifest itself, I am once again led to consider a potential contribution by Oman. Having used its good offices to help defuse the nuclear issue, there is a role Oman could play in helping resolve the region's most horrific conflict — the war in Syria. This role derives from another laudable attribute of the country's majority Islamic sect, Ibadism: the embrace of moderation and tolerance as basic religious tenets. Should Iran be willing to work towards a political transition to resolve the Syrian conflict, a hospitable Arab country like Oman could contribute to such an effort by offering itself as a place of asylum for members of the current Syrian regime.
Admittedly, much of what appears above reflects a career diplomat's optimism, almost a prerequisite for anyone seeking to enter the profession. In my experience, occasionally an unexpected development will occur to reinforce that innate optimism. One such episode took place near the end of my tenure as ambassador in Oman. While the embassy was working to resolve the issue of a visa for an Iranian student, I received an email from his father, writing to me "as one father to another." After thanking me for my efforts on behalf of his son, my Iranian interlocutor proceeded to cite the universal bond that unites parents across ideologies and across countries in their commitment to the welfare of their children. He closed his message with the hope that such common bonds could help overcome current distrust and animosity, in particular between our two countries.
I learned later from an Omani official that, as a young man, my interlocutor had been a ringleader in anti-American activity in Iran. Now, several decades later, this same individual was focused on the well-being of his college-aged son and sending a message to the U.S. ambassador in Oman citing universal aspirations of parents the world over. As the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal proceeds, we will see whether it validates my optimism — and the hope of that Iranian father — by helping to reduce tension and conflict in the region.