US: Oman Hold Delicate Negotiations Over Bases; Sultanate Pushing for Greater Control Over Access to Persian Gulf Facilities

The United States has been involved for two months in delicate negotiations with the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman, which is seeking more control over U.S. access to, and use of, its strategically located airfields and other military facilities.

The bases in Oman are considered extremely important by the United States for effective operations of the U.S. Central Command, formerly known as the Rapid Deployment Force, in a Persian Gulf crisis.

The United States used an Omani base in 1980 during the unsuccessful attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran -- and did so without informing Oman in advance.

One senior U.S. official described the negotiations, which began in mid-May, as "prickly" and "very tough," but said he did not believe continued U.S. access to the facilities, some of which are located on the Strait of Hormuz leading into the gulf, was in danger. He predicted that the talks would end in "much greater Omani control without threatening our access."

A source close to the Omani government was less certain of a happy outcome, however, saying much depended on how Washington handled the negotiations and whether it agreed to accept tighter Omani control over even routine U.S. access to the facilities.

"The United States is pushing for more freedom of access and on a routine basis," he remarked. "The Omanis feel it is their base and they are going to run the show."

He criticized the United States for showing a lack of sensitivity to Omani concern about respect for its sovereignty, and said Oman was not pleased with the low level at which the negotiations had been conducted so far by the American side.

Oman was the only Arab state willing to sign a formal agreement granting access rights to the U.S. Central Command. Two closer Arab allies of the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have refused to sign a similar accord.

The 10-year U.S.-Omani accord, signed in 1980, is up for a pre-agreed five-year review, and the two sides are arguing over a more precise definition of its terms and the rights of both sides.

One U.S. official said Oman wanted to codify all the understandings and practices of American use of the facilities that have evolved over the past five years and that this would involve either "a formal amendment" or a "codicil" to the original accord that would have to be submitted to the Senate for approval.

The United States has just finished spending more than $250 million on upgrading and expanding airfields on Masira Island, the main international airport at Sib, Thumarit in western Oman and at Khasab on the Masandam peninsula, which directly overlooks the Strait of Hormuz.

Washington is now ready to begin prepositioning war materiel there, and this has raised an additional question of who is to take care of maintenance and the terms of routine U.S. access to these depots.

Omani preference for a British firm, Airworks, to take responsibility for their upkeep has been a furthering complicating factor, although a deal is reportedly being worked out in which a U.S. firm, Vinnell Corp., would have joint responsibility.

According to both sides, the issue of what constitutes "routine" access and whether the United States must obtain prior Omani approval each and every time has become one key issue in the negotiations.

"The Omani bottom line is that this is our country and our airfields and the final decision on a case-by-case basis has to be ours," the source close to the Omani government said.

The U.S. government was understood to be trying to make a distinction between day-to-day access to the facilities for normal use and maintenance purposes and any special military operation for which the U.S. Central Command might have need for them.

Washington regularly informs the Omani government ahead of time of all planned visits by American ships and planes to any of the facilities. This practice has reportedly proven satisfactory to both sides.

U.S. officials said there was already a de facto agreement that Washington would not use the Omani facilities in the case of a special military operation without first discussing it with Omani authorities and obtaining prior approval. This is a particularly delicate issue for the Omanis because of American use of one of the facilities in the abortive 1980 attempt to rescue the American hostages being held in Tehran without first consulting Oman.

Authorities in Oman have made it clear since that it does not intend to give permission for the U.S. military to use its facilities for any operation involving an attack on targets inside Iran. This apparently means they could be used by U.S. Central Command forces only in circumstances involving a Soviet threat to the gulf region.

Since the original access agreement was signed, Oman has become much more sensitive to radical Arab criticism that it has become "a client state" of the United States and compromised its sovereignty.

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