US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a brief visit to Oman Wednesday for talks with Sultan Qaboos on rising tensions with Iran over its alleged plot to kill a Saudi envoy, officials said.
A key Gulf ally, Oman helped secure since September 2010 the release of three US hikers jailed in Iran, two of them last month, earning gratitude from the United States.
Now Washington is hoping to tap into Oman’s influence with the Islamic republic of Iran and share US concerns about Iran’s behaviour, particularly an alleged Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
“We would expect that Omanis would use their relationship with Iran, as they have in the past, to help the Iranians understand the implications of what they’re doing,” a US State Department official said.
He told reporters on the flight to Muscat that Clinton would also discuss with Sultan Qaboos the brutal violence in Syria and Yemen, where authoritarian regimes are using deadly force against pro-democracy protesters.
She will also formally thank the ruler of the tiny Gulf sultanate for helping secure the release last month of US hikers Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who were jailed in Iran after being arrested near the Iraq border.
Bauer and Fattal were arrested along with a third hiker, Bauer’s fiancee Sarah Shourd, near the mountainous border with Iraq on July 31, 2009.
All three have consistently maintained they innocently strayed into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Oman helped secure the release of all three US hikers, and paid their bail — $500,000 for Shourd and $400,000 for each of the other two — according to their Iranian lawyer.
President Barack Obama on Friday thanked Oman’s Sultan Qaboos for his role in pushing Iran to free the US hikers.
Iranian officials and leaders have fiercely denied any involvement in the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, calling it an attempt by Washington to divert attention from domestic economic woes and foreign policy failures in the Middle East.
On Monday the US State Department said Iran should extradite or prosecute the high-ranking Revolutionary Guard official accused of plotting to murder the Saudi envoy.
Oman, which maintains close ties with Shiite Iran, is member of the Sunni-majority six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council which includes oil kingpin Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile Omani state news agency reported that Clinton and Qaboos met to discuss “regional developments… and mutual cooperation,” but gave no further details.
The State Department official speaking to reporters on Clinton’s plane said the secretary of state was expected to follow up on talks she had with Qaboos in January about reforms as well as development and education.
Omanis voted on Saturday to elect their purely consultative Majlis Al-Shura council, which Sultan Qaboos has pledged to vest with new authorities in response to unprecedented social unrest.
Clinton arrived in Oman after paying brief visits to Malta as well as Libya, where she sought to promote the democratic transition pledged by the opposition who overthrew Moamer Kadhafi in August.