The United States reached an agreement with Oman on Sunday to allow the U.S. military to access Omani facilities and ports in Duqm and Salalah. This agreement offers the U.S. an opportunity to blunt Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, while simultaneously enhancing American freedom to maneuver in the region.
Since 2011, the Omani government has been investing heavily in the Duqm and Salalah ports in an effort to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons. With Duqm, the sultanate has been seeking foreign investment there to transform a remote fishing village into a major logistical hub. Chinese and Iranian firms, in particular, have expressed interest in Duqm, though ambitious plans have not translated into reality. A greater U.S. commitment helps Oman advance it goals, but also helps Washington counter Iran and compete with China in the region.
Located on the country’s southern coastline, Duqm and Salalah lie outside the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf, through which nearly 30 percent of all seaborne crude oil shipments pass. Iranian officials habitually threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, most notably in 2012 and 2018 in response to oil sanctions. To back this up, Iran has been developing its anti-access area-denial capabilities in the Persian Gulf.
A U.S. official told Reuters the port deal provides the U.S. military with access to an overland route that would enable American forces to reach the Gulf without transiting the Strait of Hormuz, “where the quality and quantity of Iranian weapons raises concerns.” This gives “the U.S. military great resiliency in a crisis.”
The U.S. and Oman have a history of military cooperation since 1980, when the two countries signed the Oman Facilities Access Agreement. Renewed every 10 years since, the agreement has granted the U.S. access to Omani airfields, which the U.S. military used during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. With its new deal, the U.S. will now have even greater access to Omani ports. Importantly, Duqm has the capacity to handle large ships and aircraft carriers.
While Washington continues to rely on Oman to counter Iran, Muscat maintains close ties to Tehran. The U.S. has occasionally taken advantage of this relationship to engage with the Islamic Republic. The U.S. sent messages to Iran using Oman as an intermediary in the late 1990s, relied on Oman to obtain the release of Americans detained in Iran in 2011, and even created a backchannel that resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal.
Recently, however, Washington has been concerned about reports that Iran has shipped weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen through Oman. In 2016, Obama administration officials cited anti-ship missiles and explosives reaching the Houthis by way of Oman. And in 2018, a UN Panel of Experts report assessed that Iranian short-range ballistic missile components were “most likely” being trafficked overland through Oman. Muscat denied this.
After some high-level consultations that addressed border security and other challenges, the port agreement shows that the tensions over the Houthi issue have likely passed. Washington must now ensure that Oman remains committed to countering Iranian aggression in the region.
Nicole Salter is a project manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonprofit research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.