The man behind secret US-Iran talks: Sultan Qaboos

Sultan Qaboos of Oman, an understated renaissance man, is perhaps quietly enjoying news of the Iran nuclear deal he helped bring about over a cup of British tea.

He doesn’t exactly have the typical diplomat’s resumé: Overthrew father in a coup; travels with his own orchestra; and comes from a country that until relatively recently didn’t have newspapers.

But Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the monarch of Oman since 1970, reportedly played a key role in facilitating the secret US-Iran talks leading up to today’s “historic” nuclear deal, according to the Associated Press. His involvement offers a reminder of the colorful deal-making, sometimes by unlikely characters, that has long been an integral part of the Middle Eastern landscape.

Sultan Qaboos was educated first in India and then at Britian’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – that venerable institution that claims among its diverse alumni Winston Churchill, King George Tupou V of Tonga, and Maj. Allan Cameron, a Scot who helped establish the International Curling Federation.

His worldly education may help explain how the sultan became something of a renaissance man. Not only does he play the organ and lute himself, but in 1985 he established what may be the Arab world’s only homegrown symphony orchestra.

He is also credited with gradually modernizing the country and improving education. Oman’s first newspaper was established a year after he took over, and while the country still has limited press freedom and the sultan has struggled to mollify a restive youth population, it’s generally seen as more liberal than some of its neighbors.

Robert Kaplan, a writer for the Atlantic who visited the country before the Arab upheavals of 2011, wrote that he had “never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way,” likening Sultan Qaboos to minimalist Scandinavian leaders.  

Perhaps part of the difference stems from the fact that Oman is isolated from much of the rest of the Arabian peninsula by a formidable mountain range, while Iran is just across the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a critical waterway for global oil shipments that has at times raised tensions between the US and Iran.

As early as 2009, according to Wikileaks, the sultanate offered to arrange talks between the US and Iran – which hadn’t had diplomatic relations for 30 years – on condition that they were kept quiet to avoid “heated atmospherics.” But it was reportedly the hostage crisis of three American “hikers” that brought him into a mediating role between the two sides and helped win the release of Sarah Shroud, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal, who were arrested  and accused of spying while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border.

With that success in his pocket, he offered to facilitate a US-Iran rapprochement, the AP reports. In March, US and Iranian officials met in Oman, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up in May, and the talks took on a momentum of their own after Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s June elections.

Sultan Qaboos wasn’t in front of the cameras in Geneva, nor were there any missives from Oman today trumpeting his success. But he is no doubt enjoying the fruits of his work, perhaps over a cup of British tea with Mozart playing in the background.

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