Oman: How the Shah of Iran Saved the Regime

A Forgotten Page of History · The Sultan of Oman, Qaboos Ibn Said, who died in January 2020, waged, at the beginning of his reign in the seventies, a war of several years against a Marxist rebellion in the Dhofar. It was with the support of British troops and later Iranian air and ground forces; in an operation conceived entirely by the Shah himself that the Sultan secured his rule. In a future article, we shall deal with the reconstruction period that followed these events.

“Iran has never won a war…” One of the countless falsehoods that President Donald Trump spouts day after day completely overlooked a significant feat of arms accomplished by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s imperial regime, overthrown by the Khomeini Revolution early in 1979. In those days, the massive interventions of the regular Iranian army were greeted with enthusiasm in Washington by democrats and Republicans alike. Interventions which had made possible the hovercraft conquest, on 30 November 1971, of three Arabian islands in the Gulf (Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tombs, which were supposed to go to the United Arab Emirates and which these still claim to this day). Made it possible above all to come to the rescue of the Sultan of Oman in his southern province of Dhofar. An Iranian contingent, spearheaded by half of an “elite” brigade, carried out massive helicopter operations with “American-style” logistics support.

Stamping out a struggle for independence

It all began, or almost all, in 1965 with the formation in Dhofar of an armed movement of social and national emancipation which challenged the power of a “backward-looking” sultan, Said Bin Taimur (father of Qaboos) as well as British military and political control over the whole region.

The Dhofar Liberation Front was gradually radicalised until it became, in 1968, The Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf. Having adopted Marxism, it became a threat to Western oil interests, its ambition being to unify in a “Greater Oman” or a “Greater Gulf,” independent and republican, the Sultanate and London’s main protégés: Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

This national project—or this dream—was attractive to nationalists and progressives but was very worrisome for those who would much rather look forward to a fragmented future of tribal “self-segregation” rather than a vast nationalist dilution.

But rather than confront the mounting perils with modernising reforms which the modest beginnings of the oil revenue era would have made possible, Sultan Said Bin Taimur, retrograde and obstreperous, clung to the most unpopular restrictions. He remained holed up in his palace in Salalah, the capital of Dhofar, almost surrounded by zones “liberated” by the separatist fighters.

When a second hotbed of insurgencies appeared in northern Oman, Her Majesty’s government grew alarmed to see the fighting come closer to the Gulf oil facilities. It engineered a palace revolution, conceived and carried out in July 1970 by the British military high command. The Sultan’s Baloch guardsmen were overwhelmed by a commando operation led by British officers. Said was replaced by his 29-year-old son Qaboos, a graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.1

At that point in time, the legitimacy of this new sultan was just about null and would remain so for several years. Qaboos was heir to a power controlled by the British and what was at stake in the ongoing conflict was the extermination of separatist fighters who were all Omanis. In the zones they had liberated, they implemented progressive social and economic policies in the teeth of an essentially foreign power.

Army led by the British

At the time, two thirds of Oman’s national budget were absorbed by a war conducted by a Defence Council composed exclusively of British nationals, with the exception of Qaboos. In the field, the” Omani” army, was commanded by British officers while the foot soldiers and non-coms were mainly mercenaries recruited among Pakistani Baloch. The only truly Arab unit was a battalion sent to the rescue by King Hussein of Jordan.

The British general John Graham, who had conceived and ordered the coup against his employer, and who was in command of the operations carried out against the Dhofar revolutionaries on the ground, in the air and at sea, was also worried about his legitimacy. For this reason, he liked to claim his struggle was part of the Cold War and made many “personal” declarations of “Omani patriotism,” like this one in 1971:

Today, in addressing my soldiers and officers, I no longer speak of ‘crushing’ or ‘overcoming’ the rebellion, but of ‘liberating our Dhofar brothers from the oppression of extremist communists, cruel and treacherous foreigners.’

Cautious distance from Beijing and Moscow

It is true that at the time Beijing, via the regime’s number two, Lin Biao, implemented a policy of Marxist-Leninist proselytism, fuelling the Front’s anti-imperialism and separatist ambitions, to the point of distributing, in mid-1971, copies of the Little Red Book in Dhofar.

Following its fusion in December 1971 with the National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf which was active in central Oman2, the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, to its credit, preserved its independence—and its reputation—by spurning ideological “ready-mades,” whether from Beijing or, subsequently, from Moscow, successive pro-viders of limited and then more consequent aid in weaponry. This aid was mostly Soviet which, after the end of 1971, became increasingly substantial, culminating in 1975 with the supply of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles SAM 7.

Above all, the Front refused to accept the collaboration, military or administrative, of any foreign advisors at all, and by enlisting only "Omanis”—along with a few Bahrainis3—preserved its national character in order to develop its political struggle in the Muscat region, in central Oman and as far as the nascent Emirates. In the liberated areas of Dhofar, tribalism was discouraged, and new social relations were instituted, with specific roles assigned to women, including on the field of battle.

Techniques of anti-guerrilla warfare

As for Qaboos, he was gradually taking over the civil control of his country, scrapping his father’s unbelievable archaism and slowly but surely increasing the Omanisation of his army, being careful, however, not to exaggerate this trend. At An-Nahar, in 1973, he declared: “Arabisation should not be carried out to the detriment of military efficiency”. This progress had been made possible by the country’s modernisation, financed by the rapid development of its petroleum industry and the soaring oil prices from the end of 1973.

In Dhofar, the escalation of hostilities was intense during the first two years of the new sultan’s rule. But the British failed to reconquer the liberated zones as they had planned but did manage to sap the pre-eminence of the Front with intensive bombings and thanks to the firqat watania, " turncoat” tribes bribed to give up the fight. The British had learned to control unruly populations in Malaysia, Kenya or Borneo. Their techniques of anti-guerrilla warfare included notably foodstuff blockades, destruction of crops and livestock, poisoning water supplies, demolishing homes, medical facilities and medicinal supplies.

In July 1972, the Front failed in its attempt to storm the fort at Mirbat, strategic point on the last coastal strip under British control outside the Salalah Plain. However, in January 1973, Colonel Hugh Oldman, Omani Defence Secretary, admitted in a press conference that the United Kingdom had not been able to hinder the activities of the Liberation Front in Dhofar and that, moreover, the movement made itself felt on a daily basis in the political life of the sultanate and even in that of the Emirates.

The Iranian army to the rescue

These were the circumstances in which a providential surprise was forthcoming: an offer of services from the Shah of Iran. He wanted to make a regional display of power was in fact champing at the bit to put to a full-scale test what was by regional standards an exceptional military machine, developed through large-scale purchases of US armaments.

This covert motivation was cloaked in the paranoia which the Western media had been cultivating at the time around the Ormuz Straits, described as the “vital artery,” the “carotid,” the “jugular vein” of the Western world. Yet the Front’s declarations and the obvious interests of a potentially “independent” Oman ruled out in advance any threat to petroleum shipping.

The Shah Reza Pahlavi justified his intervention in Oman by declaring:

Just imagine that these savages should seize the other bank of the Ormuz Straits, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Our life depends on that. And those people at war with the Sultan are savages. They may even be worse than communists.4

So, at the end of 1973, an Iranian expeditionary force landed in Dhofar, spearheaded by a half-brigade with helicopters and an artillery battalion which quickly went into action with the support of Phantom fighter bombers and a couple of naval units. Its first mission was to wrest from the revolutionaries what they called the “Red Line.” This was a strategic highroad running due North from Salalah through the hills of “green” Dhofar (so-called because of the effects of the monsoon from July to December) and establishing connections with Thamrits and Muscat via the desert. That takeover was meant to impede the progress of the mule and camel caravans supplying the “liberated zones” in the East, the furthest removed from the Yemeni border.

Once the Red Line had been conquered, it was entrusted to a Jordanian battalion. The Iranians were ordered to set up, further to the West, two fortified lines running from North to South, i.e., from the desert to the sea and cutting through the most densely populated liberated zones. Thus the “Damavand Line,” named after the highest mountain in Iran, now ran parallel, towards the border with Yemen, to a series of fortified outposts (the Hornbeam Line), the first elements of which had been established by the British the year before.

The British themselves, no longer having to cope directly with the Front, began to organise, from their desert air base at Sarfeit, not far from the Yemeni border, commando operations designed to disorganise the Front’s supply routes to the South. The latter, having learnt the lesson of its first real military reversal, decided, 1974, to restrict once more its action and ambitions to a single area of the sultanate by becoming the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO).

Massive bombings

The fighting again escalated, Iranian power made itself felt with bombings and the deployment of an artillery fire power “in the Soviet manner,” with canons flown at considerable expense by heli-copter into the heart of the Front’s sanctuaries. In September 1974, Jim Hoagland, special correspondent for the International Herald Tribune sent this report from the battlefield:

By admission of Oman’s own security services, the plans [to eliminate the revolutionaries] have been upset by what happened to the Iranians on Friday in Dhofar. An Iranian unit 200 strong, sent to attack a strategic height between Manston and Akloot, came under fire from 30 or 40 guerrillas before they could take up their position. In the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, the guerillas killed ten Iranian soldiers before withdrawing without a single casualty—as the security services admitted.

The reports from the Imperial Army soon told of the lack of preparation and low morale of troops in rapid rotation “so that each man should get his baptism of fire”. But it would have taken much worse to restrain the Shah, who stepped up his efforts in 1975. He was determined to obtain com-plete victory, since to be content with the status quo would have made a very bad impression on the foreign coalition, considering the disproportion of the forces involved.

“An army’s job is to kill”

While the British losses on the ground were becoming increasingly difficult to conceal, the Iranian losses did not seem to bother the Shah who remarked:

I think it was a brilliant success [rather than a failure]. Precisely because, despite their casual-ties, each day the morale of our soldiers improved. Besides which, the enemy also sustained loss-es. And anyway, an army, its job is to kill or, at a pinch, be killed. Especially on such difficult ground.5

In the air, the Phantoms not only bombed the PFLO’s liberated zones but also nearby South-Yemen which provided logistics support. All told, the revolutionaries claimed to have shot down 25 planes and helicopters during the 1975 raids. An Iranian pilot was encountered in Dhofar who had managed to land his helicopter after it had been damaged by small arms fire. Lieutenant Ash-rafian told how he was “saved by the rebels” who pulled him out of his aircraft “and took him into the jungle because the British were dropping bombs on the helicopter” to eliminate traces and equipment.6

During that decisive year 1975, the coalition which was defending the Sultan’s power in Dhofar consisted of around a thousand Britishers, including the general staff, at least 3,500 Iranians, 800 Jordanians, 2 to 3,000 Pakistani Baloch, Omani Baloch and Omani descendants, Israeli advi-sors7 as well as 1,200 Dhofari auxiliaries, gathered together in “strate-gic hamlets” according to the Nixon doctrine in Vietnam: “Let Asians fight Asians”.

A few days before Qaboos announced the defeat of the rebellion in January 1976, the special cor-respondent in Oman for the Times of London reported his observations as to who really wielded power in Oman: "Most of the civil servants and all the army officers I met, with one single exception, were British. Major General Perkins himself [commander-in-chief of the Omani army] assured us that ’if Great Britain were to withdraw from Oman it would be catastrophic’ […]. Serving in Oman was very useful for the training of officers posted out here. […] It is the only country in the world where you can wage a war like this one, a large-scale war using every kind of weapon.

Iranian troops, whose conflictual relations with the British had always been an open secret, re-mained in the country until the fall of the Shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini having decided, even before he came to power, that they had no business being there. The victory over the rebels was to mark a new stage in the political life of Oman.

1For a detailed account of this episode and an overview of the Omani revolution, the reader may consult the authoritative work of Abdel Razzaq Takriti, professor at The University of Houston, Monsoon Revolution—Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman 1965–1976, Oxford University Press, 2013.

2But restricting their ambitions of Independence to “middle” Oman: the Sultan-ate + the United Arab Emirates.

3Abdulnabi Al-Ekry, Du Dhofar à Bahreïn. Mémoires de lutte et d’espoir 1965-2011, édi-tions Non Lieu, 2018.

4Interview with the Shah by C. L. Sulzberger, International Herald Tribune, 19 March 1975.

5Le Lion et le Soleil, conversation between the Shah and Olivier War-in (Stock, Paris, 1976). Special planes brought back the bodies of several hun-dred officers and soldiers killed in battle.

6Bruno Dethomas, « Le lieutenant Ashrafian, prisonnier iranien », Le Monde, 14 novembre 1975.

7“In 1975, relations between Israel and Oman reached a new level.[…] Israeli military advis-ers, coordinated by Mossad’s operative Ephraim Halevy, later also head of the agency, rushed to Oman to help end the revolt.”