The US operates at least 30 military bases in the Middle East, ranging from small outposts in Syria and military encampments shared with host nations to airbases under full US control. Some are large and visible while others remain highly secretive, likely managed by a combination of CIA or US special forces personnel. These range from a navy-run medical research lab in Egypt and naval and airbases in Qatar (the biggest in the region) and the United Arab Emirates to remote outposts in the contested desert zones of Syria.
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The imbalance of forces between the US and Iran all but assures Washington of military dominance over Iran. Tehran knows this, and the country can hardly want to face an invasion. Plus, the apparent failure of explosives in the two seaborne attacks does not do much for the reputation of the Iranian military. However, both the ramping up of military rhetoric and the spectre of a long-time enemy looming large plays well politically for both the Trump and Rouhani governments.
For Russia, extending its hand to the region might indeed be useful; for Saudi Arabia, the decision appears more pragmatic as its once go-to allies for economic cooperation have been the US and Europe. However, the Saudis have several reasons to no longer trust the West and to seek support elsewhere.
Considering the target and extent of the attack, oil prices have remained relatively stable. There could be well-founded concerns on the horizon, however, given the less than clear messaging on the damage caused to the Saudi facility and its ability to fulfil supply commitments. We could, in fact, see oil prices rise well above the norm while any other hits in oil-producing countries could tip the balance.
The crisis hitting UNRWA is therefore not just a crisis of funding or misconduct, but is connected to attitudes towards its existence due to its symbolic affiliation with the right of return. Global support for the organisation still remains high but the risk of Israeli and US pressure securing the severance of its mandate looms nearby, and this could have serious effects on those who use its services.
In the background, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps captured the British tanker Stena Impero and its 23 crew members in the Gulf on 19 July, provoked by the UK detaining an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar to stop it taking oil to Syria, which some reports indicate followed pressure from the US. The EU has remained fairly silent on the matter, and Britain is contending with a possible no-deal Brexit under newly appointed prime minister Boris Johnson. While these issues remain separate from INSTEX, the mechanism’s application, membership, scope and survival could prove to be a diplomatic minefield in the current geopolitical environment.
Iran’s main bet on defying U.S. pressure is whether it can find parties that can help circumvent U.S. sanctions, especially in its oil exports. China is one of Iran’s major importers and seems to eye a strategic interest in supporting Iran’s policy of resisting U.S. maximum pressure. But the question is: to what extend can China support Iran’s resistance?