One way to understand just how different President Donald Trump's policy toward Iran is from his predecessor's is through the lens of Oman.
For Barack Obama, the tiny Gulf kingdom was a diplomatic secret weapon. His administration took advantage of Oman's good relations with both sides of the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Oman's Sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, helped negotiate the release of American hikers held captive in Iran during Obama's first term. The little nation also hosted secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that laid the groundwork for Obama's signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump, on the other hand, has largely ignored the Omanis. It was the only Gulf monarchy not to participate in a bilateral meeting with Trump during the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia last month. The aging Qaboos did not personally attend.
While Obama used Oman's good relations with Iran to advance his diplomacy with Iran, the Trump administration sees its ties to Iran as a problem.
This was part of the delicate message Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo and Trump's deputy national security adviser, General Ricky Waddell, delivered to Qaboos in a secret visit to Muscat on June 11. According to three Trump administration officials briefed on the diplomacy, Pompeo and Waddell urged Qaboos to crack down on Iranian smuggling routes through Omani territory that deliver personnel, equipment and weapons to Yemen's Houthi rebels. The U.S. provides logistical and refueling support to Saudi Arabia's Air Force in its war against the Houthis.
One U.S. official told me that Pompeo and Waddell were careful not to ask the Sultan to cut ties with Iran. That would be impossible for the Omanis, given their economic dependence on Iran. But the message was clear that Oman should take more action to stop Iran's resupplying of the Houthis.
This is a sensitive issue for Oman. Officially, it supports Yemen's president, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, whose government is fighting the Houthis. In September, though, Hadi's government announced that it had intercepted an arms shipment to the Houthis being delivered on trucks with Omani license plates.
At the time, Oman's foreign minister said there was no truth to accusations that his country's territory had been used to supply the Houthis. The U.S. intelligence community however disagrees. Reuters quoted several U.S. officials in October as saying there is evidence that the Iranians have used Oman as a land route to Yemen rebels. The U.S. officials who spoke to me for this column confirmed that assessment.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who directs the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, told me Monday that the real concern for the U.S. military and the Saudis is that Iran could be sending missile experts to Yemen to help the Houthis develop ballistic missiles. "For that you don't need to smuggle material," Riedel said. "What you need are people who have that expertise, and the Iranians have that expertise."
The prospect of the Houthis obtaining missiles is not merely hypothetical. They claim to have already fired short-range Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia. In September, the U.S. blamed the Houthis for launching missiles against U.S. and United Arab Emirates ships in the Red Sea. If the Houthi rebels were to obtain longer-range missiles, they could threaten the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me Monday that it would be smart to take advantage of Oman's diplomatic relationships with the Houthis. "On Yemen, Washington has been very happy to use Oman for its contacts with the Houthis in the past," he said. "That still has a value."
Henderson said he thinks the only way to end the war in Yemen is through eventually paying the Houthis to break off relations with the Iranians, which the Saudis consider to be an intolerable threat.
For now, the Trump administration has bigger fish to fry. Over the weekend, the U.S. shot down a Syrian fighter jet after asserting the Syrians had attacked U.S. backed rebels near Raqqa. On Sunday, the Iranians launched ballistic missiles from their own territory into Islamic State-held positions in Syria for the first time.
When Iran tested ballistic missiles back in January, the Trump administration's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, famously put the Islamic Republic "on notice." Sunday's missile launch was clearly a warning to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Associated Press quoted an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp general, Ramazan Sharif, as saying on state television: "The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message. Obviously and clearly, some reactionary countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, had announced that they are trying to bring insecurity into Iran.”
That missile launch makes Pompeo and Waddell's secret diplomacy in Oman all the more urgent. If the Iranians are now willing to launch missiles into a foreign country, what is to stop them from providing some to their proxies in Yemen?
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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