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Who Is the Shadowy Sultan that Shepherded the Nuclear Deal With Iran?

For the past several weeks, the world's attention has been fixed on a Geneva luxury hotel where Western negotiators and their Iranian counterparts have flitted in and out in search of a deal to end the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear program. But the real action, it turns out, took place 3,000 miles away in the Omani city of Muscat.

Working through the Sultan Qaboos-bin-Said, the ruler of Oman, U.S. diplomats have secretly huddled with a team of Iranian diplomats since 2011 to carry out bilateral talks aimed at securing an agreement to put the brakes on Iran's nuclear ambitions. While negotiations in Geneva appear to have generated all-important consensus among Western powers, the meat of the agreement looks to have been hammered out in Muscat, far from the prying eyes of the international media gathered in the Swiss city.

That subplot -- secret negotiations carried out in a little-known Middle Eastern capital known for the production of exceptionally aromatic frankincense -- has added a level of subterfuge to what is already one of the biggest diplomatic developments in recent memory. That a landmark nuclear deal could be worked out in secret is perhaps not surprising but it does cast the spotlight on the man who shepherded the agreement. Just who is Sultan Qaboos?

Writing for Foreign Policy, Robert Kaplan described the sultan as arguably "the most worldly and best-informed leader of the Arab world." The rare world leader who plays the organ and the lute, Qaboos is a quiet, highly competent steward of his small Middle Eastern nation. An Anglophile, Qaboos was educated in Britain -- the elite Sandhurst officer's school, after which he served in the British Army.

Qaboos, an 8th generation descendant of the founder of the royal line of Oman, overthrew his reactionary father in a bloodless coup in 1970, and since then he has cemented Oman's role as a key bit-player on the world stage. Following the example of his ancestors dating back several centuries, he has maintained good relations with the United States. A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that in 2009 Qaboos offered his services as "as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran -- if kept quiet." American diplomats clearly took the sultan up on his offer -- or a similar one shortly thereafter -- and the announcement in Geneva serves to highlight the ways that a little-known politician can be instrumental in a major diplomatic breakthrough.

And there's good precedent for Qaboos's orchestrations. By helping secure the release in 2011 of three American hikers captured in Iran, the sultan proved that he was a man that could deliver results. And, as early as this summer, rumors of Oman's role in the nuclear negotiations with Iran began to surface. Those talks began with mid-level diplomats and, beginning in March of this year, shifted to include a group of high-ranking officials hand-picked by President Barack Obama.

Qaboos, an understated and somewhat frail man with a neatly-trimmed silver beard, is known for his careful, calculating style of foreign policy. In a world where the United States and Iran are in opposite corners of the ring, Oman has remained neutral, and its leader poses for photo-ops with the same broad smile -- be it with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani or former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 1979, Oman was the only Arab state to recognize Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, and by the following year, Qaboos inked an agreement with the United States that provided American ships and planes access to Omani military facilities. But despite cozying up to the United States, Qaboos has managed to remain an effective intermediary with Iran. 

"The vulgarity of Dubai and the brutality of Iran are simply not his style," writes Brian Whitaker, a former Middle East editor for the Guardian. Instead, the sultan has managed to navigate the treacherous waters of Middle East politics with a quiet grace. According to Kaplan, both Israelis and Palestinians see Qaboos as a man fully aware of their perspectives and grievances. This elegant balancing of the bloody conflicts that plague the region have allowed Qaboos to position himself as a key diplomatic go-between for Western powers. The fact that he also has a highly respected symphony orchestra and composes his own music only adds to the mystique of Qaboos as a kind of Middle Eastern Renaissance man.

But even if he has an air of cultivation, there is no getting around the fact that Qaboos is a despot, if an enlightened one. During his 43 year-rule, he has modernized the country's infrastructure, improved the education system, worked towards expanding women's rights, and implemented regulations protecting the environment. But the sultanate has very limited freedom of press and virtually no freedom of association. Political freedoms are minimal, and the sultan retains absolute authority. Though the country saw a few sporadic protests, Oman largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Protesters claimed they were not standing up against the widely-admired sultan, but other "corrupt officials." The demonstrations resulted in a wave of arrests of human rights' activists, however, which were part of a broader crackdown on dissenters against the ruling class. 

Since then, the protests have died down, but now the country faces a more immediate problem. Though briefly married to his cousin, Qaboos is single, 73, and without an heir. The lack of a successor raises questions about the long-term viability of the current regime. Oman's neighbors are asking the same question. When Oman unmasked a spy ring run by United Arab Emirates, among the issues the spies were gathering information on was the question of Qaboos' heir. Unhappy with Oman's neutral stance toward Iran, it's a question of deep importance to the UAE.

If the Emirates ever needed a confirmation of Qaboos' influence, they got it this week in Geneva.  

MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images

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Bad Metaphor Watch: Iranian Nuclear Deal Edition

In the war of words over the nuclear deal with Iran, any metaphor is fair game.

Skeptics of the agreement hashed out in Geneva see parallels between this deal and, well, just about every bad, no good, awful, catastrophic moment in international politics since 1914. Meanwhile, its defenders have run out of breathless adjectives with which to describe a deal that just, maybe, might, possibly be similar to President Nixon's opening to China.

In short, the debate over how to interpret the Geneva agreement has descended into a fun house of dueling metaphors. This is your guide to those metaphors -- and the argument -- that will surely dominate the next few months as the world debates whether the Geneva agreement represents a bona fide diplomatic breakthrough.

Get ready to hear a lot about Neville Chamberlain and "peace in our time." Oh, also: Appeasement.

Munich

Speaking of Neville Chamberlain, the now infamous British prime minister who signed away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in an attempt to make peace with Adolf Hitler, the ghost of the man who famously promised "peace in our time" in 1938 has already been trotted out in the debate over the Iranian nuclear program. Over at the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol didn't even bother to explain why the Geneva deal represents a new Munich Agreement. Under the headline "75 Years Ago," he just reposted Winston Churchill's speech on the latter: "I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat." The implication couldn't have been clearer: With this deal, the United States has laid down and accepted defeat at the hands of the mullahs in order to avoid the painful, necessary confrontation on the horizon.

But, oh boy, is it a terrible analogy. The assumption behind the use of the Munich analogy lies in what neoconservatives have come to see as the "provocative weakness" of the deal to avoid a war with Hitler. The problem with this concept is that it is impossible to know what is a "provocative weakness" and what is not. To whit, here are some other moments in history that neoconservatives have come to see as instances of weakness that potentially threatened global peace and stability: U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements to reduce nuclear stockpiles, President Ronald Reagan's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon following the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and the failure to bomb Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Take a moment to consider how not a single one of those decisions resulted in a massively destructive land-war that left nearly 60 million dead.

Reflecting on his time in office, President Lyndon Johnson had this to say about the historical analogies at play in his execution of the Vietnam War: "Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression."

In short, no one really knows what "Munich" means anymore. Given that he just reprinted a Churchill speech, Kristol probably doesn't either.

The Persian empire

On Friday, Bloomberg's Middle East sage in residence, Jeffrey Goldberg, posted a fascinating interview with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi royal who, in Goldberg's phrasing, "seems to own most everything there is to own." The plugged-in prince went on to describe Iran's ambitions and what Tehran hopes to achieve with a nuclear rapprochement. Mind you, this interview was carried out before the Geneva deal was struck but has been widely circulated in recent days as an expression of how Saudi Arabia views the agreement. "Look, Iran is a huge threat, historically speaking," Alwaleed told Goldberg. "The Persian empire was always against the Muslim Arab empire, especially against the Sunnis. The threat is from Persia, not from Israel. This was a great empire ruling the whole neighborhood. I'll tell you something -- they are in Bahrain, they are in Iraq, they are in Syria, they are with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, which is Sunni, in Gaza. They are intruding into these areas. King Abdullah of Jordan had a good statement on this -- he said that a Shiite crescent begins from Iran, through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and goes down to Palestine, to Hamas."

Saudi Arabia is currently engaged in a vicious battle for influence with Iran, and the paranoia which Alwaleed gives voice to here is a good example of just how inflamed the Sunni-Shiite divide has become in the Middle East. Alwaleed's statement isn't so much a reflection of a regional rivalry but what Saudi Arabia views as an existential fight with a sworn enemy. Any move that grants that enemy quarter will naturally garner enormous resistance from the kingdom, but the idea that the regional ambitions would ever approach anything resembling the Persian Empire of lore is perhaps a bit much.

'Nuclear 1914'

Speaking to the Daily Beast's Eli Lake, Robert Zarate, the policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a Washington think tank, coined what can only be described as a novel approach to framing the Geneva agreement. "We're another step closer to a nuclear-1914 scenario in the Middle East or elsewhere," Zarate told Lake.

The idea, it seems, is that the Geneva agreement is about to spark a massive land war replete with awful trench warfare and rampant disease -- one only made worse by the addition of nuclear weapons. The year 1914 is of course in reference to World War I, but how it applies to anything resembling the modern Middle East is baffling. Has the Middle East now become the proverbial powder keg waiting to go off? "If we cannot say 'no' to Iran -- a country, by the way, that's repeatedly violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, international nuclear inspections and U.N. Security Council resolutions -- then good luck getting countries who haven't broken any rules, including some of America's allies and partners, to refrain from getting enrichment and reprocessing or, perhaps eventually, nuclear weapons," Zarate elaborated in his conversation with Lake. That may very well be true, but in what in the world does that have to do with World War I?

The China opening

To get a sense of just how stark the divide is over the Iranian nuclear deal, consider this: While Zarate sees the seeds of World War III in Geneva, Michael Hirsh, writing for National Journal, compares the agreement to Nixon's opening with China. Hirsh wonders whether the agreement could "transform the dangerous dynamics of the region" and whether a warming of relations between Washington and Tehran could herald a diplomatic breakthrough on a whole host of issues that continue to bedevil the Middle East. Everything from the war in Syria to peace between Israel and Palestine could be solved, Hirsh thinks, by the Geneva agreement. Much like Nixon's opening to China, Hirsh believes that Obama's Iran gambit could end a poisonous cycle in Middle Eastern politics, one in which conflicts only proliferate and peace remains elusive.

Hirsh, of course, qualifies this argument by a heavy reliance on the verb "could," but one question still remains for him: How does one say premature in Farsi?

Libya

In the run-up to the Geneva agreement, Israel launched something of a PR-offensive against the deal that was taking shape. During a visit to Washington, Yuval Steinetz, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, made the case that Iran should not just put the brakes on its nuclear program but dismantle it entirely. "We want an outcome more like Libya, less like North Korea," Steinitz told the New York Times. That analogy referred to the 2003 decision by Libya to box up its nuclear program and let American military planes cart the material out of the country. The problem with that analogy is that it's something Iran would never agree to. The best-case scenario (given the current Iranian negotiating position) seems to be that Tehran would agree to slow its nuclear program and refrain from developing a nuclear weapon. Israel, on the other hand, wants to completely strip Iran of its nuclear program. Secretary of State John Kerry has described the Geneva negotiations as "the art of the possible," but the Israelis see those talks very differently: "the art of we get whatever we want." The "we," of course, being Iran. 

Iran's touchdown dance

As Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican, sees it, all this hoopla about a nuclear program has the Iranians dancing in the end zone. "If you see the reaction of Iran right now -- I mean, they're spiking the football in the end zone saying that, look, we consolidated our gains, we've relieved sanctions," Corker said on Fox News Sunday. "We're going to have the right to enrich. So, I want to make sure we go to the end zone here."

Oh, those Iranians: As everyone knows, the only thing they love more than their nuclear weapons is their football.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images