When Oman Almost Went to War With Iran
The late sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, was widely respected as a prudent statesman who stayed out of regional conflicts and a reliable mediator who secretly hosted U.S.-Iran talks that led to the landmark Iran Deal (JCPOA). But, the much admired Sultan wasn't always a prudent peacemaker, recently declassified U.S. government documents reveal another side of the Sultan.
Here's a fascinating story about how Sultan Qaboos allied with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to attack the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf and nearly brought destruction to his capital city Muscat. Qaboos, a graduate of Oxford University and the British Military Academy, hated Saddam but he hated the Iranian leader Ay. Khomeini even more.
27 September 1980: just five days after Iraq invaded Iran hoping for a quick victory against the Iranian military gutted by post-revolutionary purges of its officer corps –Sultan Qaboos secretly informed President Carter’s administration that he was entering the war to back Saddam, that Iraqi forces would use military bases at Seeb Int'l Airport and Masirah Island off the Omani coast to launch surprise air and sea attacks on Iran’s naval bases.1 Their primary target: Bandar Abbas, Iran’s busiest southern port.
A military adventure like that would have engaged Oman’s military, then led by British generals, into a devastating war that would disrupt world oil supplies as well as bring a swift retaliation from Iran.
Cable from the U.S. embassy in Muscat declassified in 2017 show that Oman's top official Qais bin Abdul Munim al-Zawawi told the American envoy Stephen Buck, “Now is the time to finish Khomeini once and for all. Saudi Arabia maybe more powerful but it's weak and will do nothing against Khomeini’s regime."2
While the Saudis funded Saddam indirectly though Kuwait, they refused to get involved directly fearing a revolt by its Shi'a population which dominates the oil rich Eastern Provinces and attacks by Iran on its oil facilities.
At a high level military meeting the British commander of Oman’s air force, Air Vice-Marshal Erik Bennett, objected to the plan. He and other British officers serving in Oman's military had been warned by British intelligence: the Iranians would destroy Muscat in retaliation.
As the Iraqi forces began landing in Muscat, there was panic in Washington and on 27th September, the White House held an emergency meeting chaired by NSC official William Odom. US officials realized, if Oman entered the war, 3/4th of world's oil supply which passes through the Straight of Hormuz would come to a stop!
In a few hours, Oman received a warning: the message to Sultan Qaboos made it clear that when Iran retaliates against Oman, the U.S. navy would not come to its defense. Then, the U.S. and British intelligence services leaked the story to pressure the Sultan and the Iraqi presence became widely known in Muscat.
Faced with the prospect of an Iranian attack on Muscat, Sultan Qaboos quickly backed off and asked Iraq to withdraw its forces from Muscat.