Tehran and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian president Hassan Rouhani began an official two-day visit to the Sultanate of Oman on Wednesday, in a bid to improve relations with Iran’s Gulf neighbors and build economic ties.
The trip marks Rouhani’s first visit to an Arab country since taking office at the end of last summer. He is accompanied by a high-level delegation geared towards developing trade links, including his ministers of trade, labor, oil, and transport, according to the Iranian media.
Before leaving Tehran, Rouhani told reporters that relations with neighboring countries were of “extraordinary importance” to Iran.
As well as fostering economic ties, the visit is also likely to focus on Oman’s longstanding role as a mediator between the US and Iran.
Separated from Iran only by the narrow Strait of Hormuz, Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, has sought to maintain links with Iran despite the suspicion with which it is viewed by other Gulf Arab states. He was the first foreign head of state to visit Iran after Rouhani’s election, travelling to Tehran in August.
Iranian foreign relations expert Yusuf Molayi, a professor of international law at Tehran University, said: “The Sultanate of Oman is one of the countries that has played an important role in the negotiations between Iran and Western countries. It is one of the Arab nations which has good relations with Iran.”
The Omani capital of Muscat was reportedly the site of clandestine talks between Iranian and US officials in the run up to the interim nuclear deal reached last November.
The Sultan and his ministers have also acted as intermediaries in the past, agreeing to carry messages between the presidents of the US and Iran during the Clinton and Khatami administrations, while Omani officials also helped secure the release of three American hikers in 2010 and 2011 after they were accused of illegally entering Iranian territory.
“The bilateral negotiations will include strengthening Iranian relations with Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which the Iranian president is expected to visit in the next [Iranian] year [beginning in late March]. The two sides will also discuss strengthening relations with the West and the Syrian crisis,” Molayi added.
“The fact Rouhani is going with a high-level delegation confirms the importance of the visit, and we should monitor its results. The visit could play a big role between the two countries given the problems the GCC is experiencing at the moment.”
Oman has long sought to import gas from Iran to meet its energy needs and the two sides signed an “initial agreement” to construct an undersea pipeline shipping gas from Iran to Oman on Wednesday. Efforts to explore the option of constructing a pipeline across the Strait of Hormuz had previously run afoul of US sanctions on Iran, as have plans to export Iranian liquefied natural gas to global markets via Oman.
However, signs of progress in international nuclear talks over Iran’s controversial nuclear program have revived hopes that its economic isolation may be coming to an end.
Iran’s ambassador to Oman, Ali Akbar Sibawayh, said that trade links between the two states were increasing in comments to Asharq Al-Awsat on Tuesday.
He said: “The size of the commercial exchange between Tehran and Muscat will reach 1 billion dollars by the end of the current Iranian year, which ends on March 21, while bilateral investments will jump to 10 billion dollars by the end of 2014.”
“Iran will implement 10 important projects in the Sultanate of Oman, most of them in the Duqm Wilayat, while others will be distributed among the Wilayat of Sohar, the city of Salala and the Dhofar region,” he added. “The Sultanate of Oman is currently investing in many Iranian cities, including Chahbahar, Yazd, Tehran and Kish.”