The qualities of mediating a US-Iran settlement

As it has done before, the tiny sultanate of Oman may act as a neutral party for Iran and the US to negotiate a stand-down. It brings special mediating skills rooted in a commandment found in the three Abrahamic faiths.

AP Photo
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, and Oman's Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, stand at attention during a ceremony welcoming Alawi to the Pentagon July 27.

Since May, the United States and Iran have appeared on course for confrontation. President Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Iran’s forces in Syria began to threaten Israel. In August, Mr. Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran and sought to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. Iran then warned of a regional war if the US pushed too hard.

Those, at least, were the big headlines, the type that feed off conflict and fear. Less visible were quiet efforts at diplomacy that could eventually quell the escalation.

In recent weeks, the tiny country of Oman has again stepped into its role as a third-party mediator in Middle East disputes. A top Omani official, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, met with top leaders in both the US and Iran, including the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qassem Suleimani. Just the fact that both Iran and the US met with this Omani diplomat is good news that each side may want to step back from the abyss and reach a settlement.

Oman’s role, however, is far more than one of mere messenger. For that kind of back channel, the US and Iran could be using Switzerland, which represents US interests in Iran. Instead, Oman brings special qualities to difficult negotiations, the kind that many peacemakers admire.

Oman’s ruling sultanate has long preached tolerance to its people and others, an approach which has helped it become a neutral player in the Middle East and allowed it to have cordial relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran and many others. It has a track record of knowing how to build trust and mutual respect. This includes its pivotal role in facilitating the talks between the US and Iran between 2011 and 2015 that led to the agreement curbing the Iranian nuclear program.

But for Oman, neutrality and tolerance are not enough for peacemaking. It also relies on a command found in the three Abrahamic faiths: Love your neighbor as yourself.

In a recent talk, Sayyid Badr bin Hamad al-Busaidi, secretary-general of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained that his country’s pursuit of good relations in the region goes beyond merely assisting its neighbors. It entails living as “though we were as them, to see the world through their eyes.”

“You enter the [diplomatic] process not seeking to maximize gains in line with your own perception of your own interests, but by seeking to understand the interests of your neighbor: What does he want? How might what he wants be compatible with what I want? Is there some solution to this problem that neither of us have yet thought of that might turn out to work better for both of us?” said Mr. Busaidi.

The solution to a dispute starts with a dialogue, and dialogue starts with humble listening. “Put your own interests to one side for one moment, and start with your neighbor’s interests,” he said. The love-your-neighbor command, stripped of its ethical or sacred connotations, starts with the assumption that you and your neighbor share the same fundamental interests.

“I’m aware that this might seem to fly in the face of many orthodox accounts of international relations, which assume a realist attitude on the part of global actors,” he said. But the realist paradigm has so far been unworkable in the Middle East. Instead, the region needs “one in which no negotiation is ever seen as a zero-sum game.”

In coming weeks or months, the US and Iran may announce an agreement that involves compromises on each country’s part. If so, their grand bargain will probably be scrutinized to see who gained, who lost. Economic and military pressure may be seen as the driving forces. Yet little noticed could be Oman’s quiet role as mediator, one that starts with the power of a simple commandment found in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Love may not break out between the US and Iran. But they might at least begin to respect each other as they do themselves.

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