President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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Iran Before and After 1979: How Did We Get Here from There?

Thirty-six years ago on February 11, 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy came to an end and with it the commencement of an era of disorder throughout the Middle East. Just previously characterized by President Jimmy Carter as an “island of stability,” the political Shi’a clerics’ rapid confiscation of the state apparatus under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically shifted Iran’s foreign policy by  frequently supplanting national interests with sectarian ones. Khomeinism blended Third Worldism (anti-US), pan-Islamism (political Islam), and Shi’a-tinged liberation theology while also occasionally appealing to Persian historical greatness. That radical shift persists to this day. The consequences of this deviation from a more rational, national interest based, approach to policy formulation reverberate throughout the region today, particularly in the Levant and Mesopotamia. This reversal upended what had been a mutually beneficial de facto strategic alliance between Iran, Israel and the US that helped to maintain a balance of power in the region. Today’s relations among the three states could not be more different from the pre-1979 era as there is very little hope for democracy and secularism in today’s Iran.

How Did We Get Here?
In the wake of the events marking that wintery day of 1979, the trilateral Iran-Israel-USA alliance gave way to counter-natural realignments with unforeseeable consequences. Indeed, a cascade of incremental regional disintegration was to follow. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan rent asunder the generally amiable relations between the countries since the signing of a friendship treaty in 1921. To the south, the House of Saud-led Arab Sunni sheikhdoms engaged in an ongoing battle against the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose supreme leader overtly challenged the former’s religious legitimacy.[1] From this struggle for the leadership mantle of Islam, a particular brand of Islamic extremism developed and became militarized, thus giving rise to the forces of al-Qaeda and ISIS decades later. On Iran’s west, Saddam Hussein assumed Iraq’s presidency in a brutal bloodbath, turning his military on what he perceived as a vulnerable Persia in the following year. Lacking allies in an increasingly unstable and threatening Middle East, post-revolutionary Iran took its friends where it could find them, targeting Shi’ite co-religionists in Damascus and southern Lebanon in need of oil and financing. And as Hezbollah (and eventually even Sunni Hamas) opened up smoldering fronts on Israel’s borders, that country’s political leadership gradually shifted from kibbutz-minded labor Zionism towards one increasingly religious.

While these events and the regional realignments they produced are varied in their underlying causes, they are in many ways direct consequences of Iran’s revolution.  Taking into account the exceptional degree of regional instability borne of policies beholden to the ideological precepts of the Vilayat-e Faqih, it remains highly unlikely that a greater peace will come to the Middle East while the present regime’s concept of the Islamic Republic of Iran persists. This is not to say that Iran’s current leadership behaves irrationally: if rational is the systematic pursuit of a set objective, then that leadership has consistently been rational from the onset in 1979. However, its calculus is based first and foremost in the survival of the revolutionary regime with a focus on sectarian concerns, and the relegation of genuine national interests to a distant second. For evidence, one needs to look no further than the milestones of this leadership’s record of the last 36 years.

By way of example, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the savage dismantling of the country’s military chain of command, as it immediately followed the `79 Revolution, with Saddam’s armies offensive as its direct consequence. Similarly, Iran’s national interests had nothing to do with the post-`79 destruction of the nation’s civil society, coupled with the executions and exile of its entrepreneurs and academics, which further placed Iran on a downward trajectory that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps only accelerated for the sake of its religious ideology with corollary financial benefits. On current display is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intransigence over the nuclear issue, despite those debilitating sanctions presently levied against his country: since the so-called “revolution of the disinherited” and over the past 30 years, the number of people living in shanty towns in Iran has been multiplied by seventeen.[2]

The regime’s combined efforts to control any and all spaces for dissent culminate in a turn from a pluralistic reading of the country’s history to one that is strictly dogmatic in its Shia mania: a realistic reading of this country’s millennia-long journey shows that reducing Iran’s history, culture and identity to Islam, reducing Islam to Shiism and Shiism to Khomeinism is an academic nonsense. As a result, there is little hope of a reliable relationship with a “partner” committed to a culture of sectarianism despite today’s common concerns, be they geopolitical, geoeconomic, or environmental.

Consider this state of affairs with the regional policies of pre-revolutionary Iran. With Reza Shah’s drive to modernize and reform in the 1920s, Persia simultaneously embarked on a policy of good relations with its neighbors in order to better concentrate efforts on its internal development. This conciliatory, non-interventionist approach was consistently reaffirmed from the 1937 Sa’dabad Pact through the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO; 1955) to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD; 1964), the latter comprising Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan. Significantly, Mohammad Reza Shah’s Iran further maintained its regional balance through its reliance on US and Israeli military and economic aid, designed to contain Soviet ambitions from the north and increasingly radical governments in Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Combined, these alignments coincided with an unprecedented period of stability throughout the Northern Tier states, with resultant socio-economic benefits for Iran, prospering under the protective umbrella of the country’s well-equipped and trained armed forces.

Once a Successful Alliance

The former functionality of the Iran-Israel-US alliance was noteworthy in its pragmatic aspects: 

  • US and Iranian concerns of Soviet expansion into the Middle East, with Iran securely straddling a region bridging the Asia Minor to the Indian Ocean.
  • The multitude of US business interests entrenched in Iran, especially in its petroleum and arms industries.
  • Iran’s pivotal position in Israel’s “alliance of the periphery”, firmly coupled with US protective concerns for both countries.
  • The non-Arab cultural, linguistic, and historic Judeo and Persian national identities distinct in an otherwise predominantly Sunni-Arab region.
  • Common energy interests as Iran became the near-exclusive oil provider of Israel, as well as those in commerce, the military, and intelligence.

In an ideal future world, one might imagine Iran and Israel moving towards a new balance in their regional relationships given these common geographic, demographic, and economic interests, as well as certain civilizational considerations, that had brought them together in the past.

For the forseeable future, however, the Periphery Doctrine is no more and will never be the same as it once was. The reasons are several. The greatest, of course, was the paradigm shift of 1979 and the resulting challenge Khomeini made to the rival Riyadh, one that could not advance without taking the Arab side in the Palestinian Question, thus fundamentally putting it at odds with Israel. In stark contrast to decades of a cooperative relationship in military and economic spheres, Turkish-Israeli relations under Recip Tayyip Erdogan have sunk to new lows and will unlikely rebound without either a change of government in Ankara or a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran’s younger generations have shown a greater degree of concern and sympathy for Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel’s relations with Ethiopia during the era of the periphery alliance fluctuated, and although now improved, it may shift again. Finally, taking into account the post-Cold War Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as what may be history’s first independent Kurdish state), a new group of states or nations that may constitute reliable peripheral allies have has expanded (e.g. Israeli-Azerbaijani security and trade relations).[3]


This is not to advocate for the resumption of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary status quo ante under an authoritarian ruler, who was quite far from being a liberal democrat. Indeed, his regime and the current are untenable due to the extraordinary amount of authority resting in the hands of a single individual, be it the Shah or the Supreme Leader. If a system of governance is to be defined as the tangible and intangible relations of interdependent, rational elements whose raison d’être is the sustainability of the whole, the durability of a structure based predominantly in the power of one is limited. The lesson here is that whether the Pahlavism[4] of yesteryear or the current U.S. administration’s tacit acceptance of Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, placing long-term bets on oppressive Iranian regimes has borne and will continue to bear out poorly.

As noted, Khomeini’s victory in the wake of Iran’s revolution presaged an unforeseen era of strife reverberating throughout the Middle East over three decades later. Recognizing their limits, some counterfactuals are worth considering: Would the Red Army have invaded Iran’s neighboring Afghanistan had the strong military and intelligence Iran-Israel-US ties persisted? Would Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have dared to attack Iran, had the command structure of the Iranian armed forces not been devastated by Khomeini and his “religious intellectuals”? Would Saddam Hussein have sent his armies to Kuwait, had Iran remained strong and influential? Could a non-revolutionary Iran have played a potentially constructive role as a bridge between Jews and Arabs?

The tragic reverberations from the ‘79 Revolution actually represent an anomaly, a disruption of aligned interests. Before 1979 the convergence of interests between these states went deeper than Cold War politics. At one point in history, by reason of geopolitics, economy, security, culture, and energy, Iranian and Israeli concerns were in line and enjoyed attendant US engagement. Is it possible for such an arrangement to be realized once again? Not in the near future, but if it is to become an eventual possibility it could only be done through the establishment of a democratic and secular government in Tehran.  In the weeks and months ahead, many variables could radically change the entire Iranian equation: from the radicalizing internal antagonisms in the run up to the next Majlis elections in June 2016, to the medical condition of the Supreme Leader and the foreseeable major crisis that his succession would inevitably unleash. Free and fair elections represent the most viable political strategy over this period and beyond: The Islamic Republic is a signatory of the Paris 1994 inter-parliamentary declaration that defines the criteria for such elections. Wouldn’t a freely elected law-making assembly in Tehran be the West’s best Iranian partner in trust-building measures so badly needed to solve the nuclear and regional crises?


[1] Fuller, Graham. The Center of the Universe – The Geopolitics of Iran. Westview Press, 1991, p. 105.

[2] Radio Farda, March 13, 2015,

[3] Shaffer, Brenda, “Azerbaijan’s Cooperation with Israel Goes Beyond Iran Tensions,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, April 16, 2013,

[4] Bill, James. The Eagle and the Lion – The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Yale Press, 1988, pp. 374-378. 

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Open Letters, Closed Minds, and the Making of US Foreign Policy

Friends and colleagues have asked me several times today for my opinion on the open letter to the Iranian government signed by forty-seven Republican members of the Senate, also known as the “Tom Cotton Letter.”

Since both the letter and the reactions to it have raised significant questions about the conduct and direction of American foreign policy, I think it is worth presenting a brief analysis, to help advance the conversation.

‪1. The best face to put on the letter is that Senator Cotton (R-AR) and his colleagues are expressing their concerns about what they consider a dangerous direction in American diplomacy, and their skepticism about any likely deal with Iran. That is of course very much within the rights of any member of congress (indeed, any American citizen). We are under no compulsion to agree with everything the President does, no matter what his more enthusiastic supporters may be implying on Facebook and elsewhere these days. I am also worried about how this deal is shaping up, and think we should be having a serious and public discussion of our policy vis-à-vis Iran.

‪2. That being said, the form chosen is so inappropriate as to severely undermine any point the authors hoped to make. Writing a brief “open letter” to a foreign government that includes condescending and amateurish (and, may I add, passive-aggressive) references to Congress’s role in the treaty process serves no good purpose at all. It not only shows contempt for the Executive Branch’s responsibility for foreign affairs, it also insults the intelligence of the Iranians. On top of that, it also undermines our negotiating partners, who include many of our closest allies in the world. Loudly announcing that the President has no authority to make a deal is deeply destructive, and will not be much help to future presidents either, whatever party they represent. I do not pretend to be able to look into the souls of the authors, but it appears to me that they have allowed their contempt for the president and the process, and their desire to play to certain putative elements of their political base, to blind them to the deeply problematic elements of this course of action.  An open letter that reflects a closed mind is bad politics and worse policy.

‪3. I repeat, the problem is not that they disagree with the president, but rather in appealing to the Iranians in this way. I fail to see how it serves any purpose other than to make them appear petty and the United States government appear dysfunctional. If the looming agreement is so terrible, then a better agreement will take further negotiation. They cannot seriously expect this letter to improve the western negotiating position; if they just want to torpedo any possibility of continued talks with no sense of what should come next, they are being irresponsible in the extreme.

‪4. What could/should they have done instead? Give speeches in the Senate, write op-ed pieces for American newspapers, and give TV interviews expressing their concerns about the deal. Those are perfectly legitimate ways to participate in public debate. I made a joke yesterday to a colleague (Michael Schwarz of Ashland University) that I “was still smarting about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions,” which criticized the Alien and Sedition Acts, and reflected Jeffersonian doubts about Federalist foreign policy. (Historians, I admit, joke about odd and obscure things sometimes.) The difference, however, is that Madison and Jefferson were within their rights to criticize government policy in print and debate. Of course one can always say “the enemy is listening,” but it does not hurt anyone for the world to see how vibrant and constructive political debate in a democracy can be.

5. With that in mind, any complaints about the negotiations and the possibilities of a deal with Iran should be adult enough to deal in specific concerns and possible solutions. What would a good deal look like from the perspective of these critics? If they have complaints about the President not including Congress in his plans, how about making that the meat of their argument? The letter as it stands merely says that an agreement without Congressional approval could be reversed by the next President, which is true but irrelevant to the policy question. A better piece would make a constructive argument for congressional participation in the discussions, and even go on record as to what the Congress would like to see in a final agreement. Not including such things makes the organizational complaints sound disingenuous. If Senator Cotton and his colleagues believe that no agreement is possible under any circumstances, they should have the courage to say it, and the common sense to say what implications that has for American foreign policy.

‪6. Finally, I am especially pained to see that many smart conservatives, in their rush to defend compatriots against criticism, are acting as though questions of form and method are unimportant, or simply saying “well the other guy did/does/will do it too.” It matters a great deal how a state manages its foreign policy. It matters a great deal that the leaders of a democratic state recognize the legitimacy of their colleagues, even if they happen to be from the other party. And it matters a great deal how well the institutions of a representative government relate to each other and to any policy debate, now and in the future. Everyone knows that, and for columnists and commentators to pretend otherwise is a further insult to our intelligence and does neither the spokespeople nor their cause any good.

‪7. The release of this letter is a new low in the management of serious foreign policy debate in this country. Somebody needs to stop this race to the bottom, or no one will be able to govern this country and manage its relations with the world at all.

‪This entire discussion reminds me of a favorite quote from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons—which is a favorite play of mine, about one of my heroes, Thomas More. In it, More defends the need for formal legal procedures against the arguments of his fanatical son-in-law, Roper:

‪Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

‪More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

‪Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

‪More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

For the sake of our, and the world’s safety, American leaders need to respect each other and the foreign policy process, if we hope to develop a sensible foreign policy.

Related Post: Reflections on Granieri’s “Open Letters, Closed Minds, and the Making of US Foreign Policy,” by John R. Haines, Senior Fellow, FPRI, March 12, 2015

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Netanyahu’s Speech: What Difference Does it Make?

In the run-up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday, one important question was being asked that is worthwhile to revisit in the aftermath of the Israeli premier’s address:

Will Netanyahu’s speech help prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

This, of course, was Netanyahu’s stated reason for taking the podium before Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner.

On one side, many argue that, by bringing his case to Congress, Netanyahu may have been able to halt a disastrous deal between the Obama Administration and Iran from within.

These commentators and pundits claim that Netanyahu had the opportunity to energize opponents of the deal being discussed and convince those on the fence that such a deal would be a nightmare. In turn, so the argument goes, lawmakers would be emboldened to try to block a deal with Iran, and the American public would be energized to organize against it. With one speech, therefore, Netanyahu would singlehandedly be able to prevent a bad deal with Iran from being reached and the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon.

On the other side, many argue that Netanyahu’s speech has only damaged Israel’s interests and weakened any say Israel might have had in the ongoing talks.

Members of this camp point out that one of Israel’s most vital interests is to maintain close relations with the United States, the world’s greatest superpower and top provider of aid to the Jewish State. They argue that by publicly expressing disagreements with the Obama Administration in an open session of Congress, Netanyahu is severely undermining these ties. As evidence, some point to reports (which surfaced before the speech was delivered) that in the run-up to Netanyahu’s address, the Obama Administration decided to stop briefing Israeli officials on the progress of the talks with Iran. Therefore, so this argument goes, Israel is already losing what little clout it had in the talks to begin with.

To a certain degree, both sides are correct: Netanyahu’s speech will undoubtedly energize lawmakers and others who oppose a deal with Iran, and it will also put a severe strain on relations with the Obama Administration at a very crucial time.

But what about the central question? Will Netanyahu’s speech help in his (and, coincidentally, the Obama Administration’s) goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

Unfortunately, it will be impossible to answer this question for years or even decades. It will likely be for historians and analysts far into the future to decide whether or not Netanyahu’s speech had an influence on whatever happens (or does not happen) in Iranian-American negotiations – and what happens after they end.

That being the case, all one can do is focus on the here and now – the waves Netanyahu’s speech will surely generate in America against a deal and the turbulence in the Netanyahu government’s relations with the Obama Administration. Observers will also be prudent to keep an eye on the upcoming Israeli elections on March 17. In less than two weeks, the Israeli people may topple Prime Minister Netanyahu at the ballot box and usher in a new government headed by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. This would likely put American-Israeli relations on an entirely different trajectory and could therefore alter the ongoing Israeli-American-Iranian saga significantly.

Justin Scott Finkelstein is the Harvey Sicherman Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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Oman: Wasta Par Excellence

By Kathleen Reedy

Oman has recently opened the doors of a new school in downtown Muscat to teach Persian language classes to its residents, both national and expatriate. It is being run by the Omani Ministry of Education, but students who complete the 12-week courses will receive a certificate from the Ferdowsi University of Mashhad in Iran. The Iranian Ambassador to Oman, Ali Akbar Sibeveih, hopes that Oman will open an equivalent Arabic language institute in Tehran in the near future.[1] Undoubtedly, some of the first to register will be some of the 100-person delegation of Omani businessmen who have made plans to visit Iran in the upcoming months to develop cross-country business ties.[2] Or perhaps those interested in furthering plans for a proposed natural gas pipeline that will run between Oman, Iran, and India.[3]  

Since the final vestiges of Persian rule were finally cleared out of Oman in the 18th century, Oman and Iran have maintained fairly consistent friendly ties, even when such ties appeared to be inconsistent with Oman’s joining the GCC with its Saudi-led antipathy toward Iran. While it shares a direct border with Saudi Arabia, Oman’s proximity to Iran across the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and its gratefulness for Iranian help during the Dhofar War (1965-1975, when Iran had over 3000 troops stationed in Oman) has made Iran an equally important neighbor. Narratives of Iranians who “died fighting for Oman on Omani soil,” are still strong among the Omani people today. Even with the ouster of the Shah, Oman continued to maintain ties with Iran and remained largely unaligned during the Iran-Iraq war. In more recent years, Oman has kept those relations going, and helped serve as the middleman between Iran and the United States, helping to facilitate the release of American hostages in 2011 and then the US-Iranian détente in 2013. The newly elected President Rouhani then made Iran’s first visit to a GCC state in more than a decade to Oman to discuss the possibility of opening a natural gas pipeline between the two countries. [4]

What is perhaps more unlikely is Oman’s strength of relations with Saudi Arabia, which funded civil unrest in Oman in the uprising of the 1950s and then again in the Dhofar War. Shared geopolitical concerns as an oil producing state (if not nearly as much as many of its GCC neighbors) as well as Arab Spring and Salafist incursion concerns has kept Oman rooted in the Gulf, though not to the point of submissiveness to Saudi aims, as the Sultan demonstrated when he stated unequivocally that Oman would not enter into a formal GCC union in 2013. However, ties remain strong between the two and Oman supports much of the GCC economic agenda.

Oman’s foreign policy, then, is a carefully crafted balancing act that plays on its location and on the fact that Oman is too small for the major players to consider it a threat. Sultan Qaboos has, since he deposed his father in 1970, managed this balance and relies heavily on the theory that a primary way to deal with enemies and threats to national security is through openness and dialogue. In other words, pragmatism. He combines this approach with a staunch policy of nonintervention in other countries, aside from allowing partners the use of Omani soil as a military base launching location.[5] Omanis are largely proud of their country’s middle role, with the only complaints coming from young military service members who feel they only get to train, not actually practice combat.

When you ask Omanis, then, what it is that drives the philosophy behind the foreign policy they are so proud of, their first reaction is often to explain it through religion. Among Oman’s two million or so citizens, almost all of them are Muslim, but most practice a rare version of Islam known as Ibadhism. It is so uncommon that it is found almost exclusively in Oman, with a few patches of practitioners in North Africa, and many educated Muslims themselves have never even heard of it. What makes it unique—and gives Oman a degree of credibility when it comes to sitting on the fence between Iran and Saudi Arabia’s wrangling—is that it is neither Sunni or Shi’a, meaning that Oman does not neatly or obviously fall into the camp of the two major regional powers.

Ibadhism, like other schools of Islam, has a long legal tradition, but in the way it is discussed and practiced today, it has several main points that make it unique. First is that it preaches righteousness. Only those who live righteously will ascend to heaven. Second, and most important for foreign policy discussions in Omani eyes, is acceptance of non-righteousness. Unlike some forms of Islam, Ibadhism preaches a great deal of acceptance for people of all religions who are not yet able to live up to the standards of righteousness. There is an element of humility in the way this concept is practiced, with many Ibadhis refusing to judge other people as wrong or to attempt to limit their practices. A common example is the tolerance for alcohol consumption, which is prohibited in Islam. Rather than heavily restricting its access, as is the case in several Gulf countries, it is fairly easy to both find alcohol in Oman, as well as Omanis drinking it without the intense stigma they might receive elsewhere. It is their sin to commit and Ibadhis do not see it as their religious responsibility to impose their will on anyone.

“Friend to all, enemy to none,” is, if such analysis is taken at face value, the result of Ibadhi’s acceptance of all. By that logic, however, it would also have been the basis for the previous sultan’s isolationism and even the creation and expansion of the Omani Empire, which stretched from Pakistan to Zanzibar in the 1800s. The answer more realistically lies with the political acumen of Sultan Qaboos,[6] who has defined himself and Oman as the perfect wasta.

Wasta is the Arabic concept for intercession, clout, middleman, connections, and patronage all rolled into one. One can have wasta, but one can also be a wasta for someone else. The word comes from the root wasat or to be in the middle, and wasta is at the center of how Arabic culture and politics function. Have a dispute with your neighbor? Need a job? Need some help with a homework assignment? Want to buy or refurbish a home? Want to get out of a speeding ticket? Need to get a form filed with a government office? Unless you are willing to wait a long time, you had better have some wasta. Your wasta may be members of your family or tribe (where there are expectations of caring for each other), but they are just as likely to be acquaintances. Wasta builds prestige—when you use your pull to help someone else, you increase your honor. It also encourages reciprocity, for if someone does a favor for you, you must now maintain the relationship and return the favor at some point. This debt is not viewed negatively, put as a positive aspect of relationship-building and equality (not unlike exchanging birthday presents). In some cases, such as helping someone get a job, there is a strong patronage element, where there is clearly someone in a higher position of power, but more often, wasta is a matter of people helping out social equals.

This wasta role, then, is what Oman is aiming to achieve. It aspires to be the trusted middle man for Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. What Sultan Qaboos lacks in power independently, he has made up in his role as the go-between, the wasta that can and will negotiate with everyone in turn, ultimately to ensure its own peace, stability, and long-term wellbeing as the great nations of the world remember and find ways to repay their small partner. And as every good wasta deal should end, all parties feel like they have gained something from it, a win-win situation that might appear to transgress all sorts foreign policy realities, but is in fact a clever play to balance everyone and gain some prestige in the process. And to ensure that relations between Oman and the big players are more than just skin deep, Oman—whose citizens already speak the language of Saudi Arabia and have ample free education that includes English—is now paving the way for its people to learn Persian as well, so that Omanis can truly talk to everyone.


Kathleen Reedy, Ph.D., works for Cubic Inc., as the Middle East Region and Culture Expert at the USAF Air Advisor Academy. The views and opinions reflected here are her own and do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States Air Force or the U.S. Government.

[1] “Center for teaching Persian language starts in Muscat,” EdArabia. 2014.

[2] Pourmohammadi, Elham. “Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry to explore avenues in Iran,” Times of Oman. April 27, 2014.

[3] Panda, Ankit. “India, Iran and Oman open talks on deep sea gas pipeline,” The Diplomat. March 1, 2014.

[4] Friedman, Uri. “Oman: The world’s hostage negotiator,” Foreign Policy. Nov 14, 2011.; Baltaji, Dana. “Oman fights Saudi bid for Gulf hegemony with Iran pipe plan,” Bloobmberg. Apr 22, 2014.

[5] “Oman: A unique foreign policy,” RAND Research Brief.

[6] Kaplan, Robert. “Oman’s Renaissance Man,” Foreign Policy. Mar 1, 2011.

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