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Iran Gains Ground in Afghanistan as U.S. Presence Wanes

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FARAH, Afghanistan — A police officer guarding the outskirts of this city remembers the call from his commander, warning that hundreds of Taliban fighters were headed his way.

“Within half an hour, they attacked,” recalled Officer Najibullah Amiri, 35. The Taliban swarmed the farmlands surrounding his post and seized the western riverbank here in Farah, the capital of the province by the same name.

It was the start of a three-week siege in October, and only after American air support was called in to end it and the smoke cleared did Afghan security officials realize who was behind the lightning strike: Iran.

    Four senior Iranian commandos were among the scores of dead, Afghan intelligence officials said, noting their funerals in Iran. Many of the Taliban dead and wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the insurgents had been recruited and trained, village elders told Afghan provincial officials.

    Continue reading the main story

    The assault, coordinated with attacks on several other cities, was part of the Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power. But it was also a piece of an accelerating Iranian campaign to step into a vacuum left by departing American forces — Iran’s biggest push into Afghanistan in decades.

    President Trump recently lamented that the United States was losing its 16-year war in Afghanistan, and threatened to fire the American generals in charge.

    There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in.

    Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor.

    Over the years, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence.

    In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.

    One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized, without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of more than 500 miles.

    But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort.

    “Iran does not want stability here,” Naser Herati, one of the police officers guarding the post outside Farah, said angrily. “People here hate the Iranian flag. They would burn it.”

    Continue reading the main story

    FARAH, Afghanistan — A police officer guarding the outskirts of this city remembers the call from his commander, warning that hundreds of Taliban fighters were headed his way.

    “Within half an hour, they attacked,” recalled Officer Najibullah Amiri, 35. The Taliban swarmed the farmlands surrounding his post and seized the western riverbank here in Farah, the capital of the province by the same name.

    It was the start of a three-week siege in October, and only after American air support was called in to end it and the smoke cleared did Afghan security officials realize who was behind the lightning strike: Iran.

    Four senior Iranian commandos were among the scores of dead, Afghan intelligence officials said, noting their funerals in Iran. Many of the Taliban dead and wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the insurgents had been recruited and trained, village elders told Afghan provincial officials.

    The assault, coordinated with attacks on several other cities, was part of the Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power. But it was also a piece of an accelerating Iranian campaign to step into a vacuum left by departing American forces — Iran’s biggest push into Afghanistan in decades.

    President Trump recently lamented that the United States was losing its 16-year war in Afghanistan, and threatened to fire the American generals in charge.

    There is no doubt that as the United States winds down the Afghan war — the longest in American history, and one that has cost half a trillion dollars and more than 150,000 lives on all sides — regional adversaries are muscling in.

    Saudi Arabia and Pakistan remain the dominant players. But Iran is also making a bold gambit to shape Afghanistan in its favor.

    Over the years, the United States has taken out Iran’s chief enemies on two of its borders, the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran has used that to its advantage, working quietly and relentlessly to spread its influence.

    In Iraq, it has exploited a chaotic civil war and the American withdrawal to create a virtual satellite state. In Afghanistan, Iran aims to make sure that foreign forces leave eventually, and that any government that prevails will at least not threaten its interests, and at best be friendly or aligned with them.

    One way to do that, Afghans said, is for Iran to aid its onetime enemies, the Taliban, to ensure a loyal proxy and also to keep the country destabilized, without tipping it over. That is especially true along their shared border of more than 500 miles.

    But fielding an insurgent force to seize control of a province shows a significant — and risky — escalation in Iran’s effort.

    “Iran does not want stability here,” Naser Herati, one of the police officers guarding the post outside Farah, said angrily. “People here hate the Iranian flag. They would burn it.”

    Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.

    “The regional politics have changed,” said Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a senior intelligence official who recently took over as the governor of Farah Province. “The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.”

    Iran and the Taliban — longtime rivals, one Shiite and the other Sunni — would seem to be unlikely bedfellows.

    Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban when their militias notoriously killed 11 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian government journalist in fighting in 1998.

    After that, Iran supported the anti-Taliban opposition — and it initially cooperated with the American intervention in Afghanistan that drove the Taliban from power.

    But as the NATO mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began supporting the Taliban to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the cost of the intervention so that they would leave.

    Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State, which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.

    In the empty marble halls of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, the ambassador, denied that Iran was supporting the Taliban, and emphasized the more than $400 million Iran has invested to help Afghanistan access ports on the Persian Gulf.

    “We are responsible,” he said in an interview last year. “A strong accountable government in Afghanistan has more advantages for strengthening our relations than anything.”

    But Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps act as complementary arms of policy — the first openly sowing economic and cultural influence, and the second aggressively exerting subversive force behind the scenes.

    Iran has sent squads of assassins, secretly nurtured spies and infiltrated police ranks and government departments, especially in western provinces, Afghan officials say.

    Even NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Sir David Richards of Britain, discovered that Iran had recruited his interpreter, Cpl. Daniel James, a British-Iranian citizen. Corporal James was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending coded messages to the Iranian military attaché in Kabul during a tour of duty in 2006.

    More recently, Iran has moved so aggressively in bulking up the Taliban insurgency that American forces rushed to Farah Province a second time in January to stave off a Taliban attack.

    “The Iranian game is very complicated,” said Javed Kohistani, a military analyst based in Kabul.

    Having American forces fight long and costly wars that unseated Iran’s primary enemies has served Tehran’s interests just fine. But by now, the Americans and their allies have outlasted their usefulness, and Iran is pursuing a strategy of death by a thousand cuts “to drain them and cost them a lot.”

    The depth of Iran’s ties to the Taliban burst unexpectedly into view last year. An American drone struck a taxi on a desert road in southwestern Pakistan, killing the driver and his single customer.

    The passenger was none other than the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A wanted terrorist with an American bounty on his head who had been on the United Nations sanctions list since before 2001, Mullah Mansour was traveling without guards or weapons, confident and quite at home in Pakistan.

    The strike exposed for the second time since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad the level of Pakistan’s complicity with wanted terrorists. It was the first time the United States had conducted a drone attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, a longtime sanctuary for the Taliban but until then off limits for American drones because of Pakistani protests.

    Yet even more momentous was that Mullah Mansour was returning from a trip to Iran, where he had been meeting Iranian security officials and, through Iran, with Russian officials.

    Afghan officials, Western diplomats and security analysts, and a former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle confirmed details of the meetings.

    Both Russia and Iran have acknowledged that they have held meetings with the Taliban but maintain that they are only for information purposes.

    That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement, which had always been supported by the Sunni powers among the Arab gulf states and Pakistan.

    But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013. He had made 13 trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and one to Bahrain, his passport showed, but also at least two visits to Iran.

    Set on expanding the Taliban’s sway in Afghanistan, he was also preparing to negotiate an end to the war, playing all sides on his terms, according to both Afghan officials with close knowledge of the Taliban and the former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.

    It was that ambitious expansionism that probably got him killed, they said.

    “Mansour was a shrewd politician and businessman and had a broader ambition to widen his appeal to other countries,” said Timor Sharan, a former senior analyst of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has since joined the Afghan government.

    Mullah Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban government in the 1990s, according to Mr. Kohistani, the military analyst. Their interests, he and other analysts and Afghan officials say, overlapped in opium. Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of the drug, and Iran the main conduit to get it out.

    Iran’s border guards have long fought drug traffickers crossing from Afghanistan, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban have both benefited from the illicit trade, exacting dues from traffickers.

    The main purpose of Mullah Mansour’s trips to Iran was tactical coordination, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At the time, in 2016, the Taliban were gearing up for offensives across eight Afghan provinces. Farah was seen as particularly ripe fruit.

    Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.

    Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.

    “He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept their orders,” he said.

    Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran, said Haji Agha Lalai, a presidential adviser and the deputy governor of Kandahar Province.

    On his last visit, Mullah Mansour traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to meet someone very important — possibly Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the former Taliban commander, who said he had gleaned the information from members of Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.

    Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in the town of Zahedan, said Mr. Lalai, who spoke with relatives of the Taliban leader.

    He was almost certainly negotiating an escalation in Iranian and Russian assistance before his death, Mr. Lalai and other Afghan officials said, pointing to the increase in Iranian support for the Taliban during his leadership and since.

    But the meeting with the Russians was apparently a step too far, Afghan officials say. His relations with Iran and Russia had expanded to the point that they threatened Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.

    The United States had been aware of Mullah Mansour’s movements, including his ventures into Iran, for some time before the strike and had been sharing information with Pakistan, said Seth G. Jones, associate director at the RAND Corporation. Pakistan had also provided helpful information, he added. “They were partly supportive of targeting Mansour.”

    Gen. John Nicholson, the United States commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said President Barack Obama had approved the strike after Mullah Mansour failed to join peace talks being organized in Pakistan.

    Col. Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London, said he believed that the American military had been making a point by striking Mullah Mansour on his return from Iran.

    “When they target people like this, they follow them for months,” he said. “It was smart to do it to cast suspicions on Iran. They were trying to create a gap between Iran and the Taliban.”

    But if that was the intention, Mr. Lalai said, it has not succeeded, judging by the way the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has picked up his predecessor’s work.

    “I don’t think the contact is broken,” he said. “Haibatullah is still reaching out to Iran. They are desperately looking for more money if they want to extend the fight.”

    There is no place in Afghanistan where Iran’s influence is more deeply felt than the western city of Herat, nearly in sight of the Iranian border.

    Two million Afghans took refuge in Iran during the Soviet invasion. Three million live and work in Iran today. Herat, sometimes called “Little Iran,” is their main gateway between the countries.

    People in Herat speak with Iranian accents. Iranian schools, colleges and bookshops line the streets. Women wear the head-to-foot black chador favored in Iran. Shops are full of Iranian sweets and produce.

    But even as the city is one of Afghanistan’s most decorous and peaceful, an air of intrigue infuses Herat.

    The city is filled with Iranian spies, secret agents and hit squads, local officials say, and it has been plagued by multiple assassinations and kidnappings in recent years. The police say Iran is funding militant groups and criminal gangs. A former mayor says it is sponsoring terrorism.

    Iran is constantly working in the shadows. The goal, Afghan officials say, is to stoke and tip local power struggles in its favor, whether through bribery, infiltration or violence.

    One day in January, Herat’s counterterrorism police deployed undercover officers to stake out the house of one of their own men. Two strangers on a motorbike seemed to be spying on the house, so secret agents were sent out to spy on the spies.

    Within hours, the police had detained the men and blown their cover: They were Iranian assassins, according to the Afghans. The passenger was armed with two pistols.

    Forensics tests later found that one of the guns had been used in the murder of an Iranian citizen in Herat 10 months earlier, police officials said.

    The two Iranians are still in Afghan custody and have yet to be charged. They have become a source of contention between Iran and Afghanistan.

    Iran disowned them, pointing to their Afghan identity cards, but Afghan officials paraded them on television, saying they were carrying false papers and had admitted to being sent by Iran as a hit squad.

    The Afghan police say they have arrested 2,000 people in counterterrorism operations in Herat over the last three years. Many of them, they say, are armed insurgents and criminals who reside with their families in Iran and enter Afghanistan to conduct dozens of attacks on police or government officials.

    Iran is set on undermining the Afghan government and its security forces, and the entire United States mission, and maintaining leverage over Afghanistan by making it weak and dependent, Afghan officials say.

    “We caught a terrorist who killed five people with an I.E.D.,” a senior police officer said, referring to a roadside bomb. “We released a boy who was kidnapped. We defused an I.E.D. in the city.”

    Flicking through photographs on his phone, he pointed to one of a man in a mauve shirt. “He was convicted of kidnapping five people.” Much of the kidnapping is criminal, for ransom, but at least some of it is politically motivated, he added.

    The 33-year-old, English-speaking Farhad Niayesh, a former mayor of Herat, is even more blunt, and exasperated. He says the Iranians use their consulate in the city as a base for propaganda and “devising terrorist activities.”

    “Iran has an important role in terrorist attacks in Herat,” Mr. Niayesh said. “Three or four Iranians were captured. They had a plan against government officials who were not working in their interest.”

    Members of Parliament and security officials say Iran bribes local and central government officials to work for it, offering them 10 to 15 Iranian visas per week to give to friends and associates. Afghans visit to conduct business, receive medical care and see family.

    The Afghan police have uncovered cases of even deeper infiltration, too. A female member of the Afghan police service was sentenced to death, accused of being a secret Iranian agent, after fatally shooting an American trainer in the Kabul Police Headquarters in 2012.

    “Our western neighbor is working very seriously,” said the senior Afghan police official in Herat who requested anonymity because of the nature of his work. “ We have even found heavy artillery to be used against the city.”

    Iran is supporting multiple anti-government militant groups in half a dozen western provinces, he said. The Afghan police, despite a lack of resources, are working to dismantle them.

    “The same sort of people are still in the city,” he added. “They are doing their work, and we are doing our work.”

    Afghans dream of restoring their landlocked, war-torn country to the rich trading center it was in days of old, when caravans carried goods along the Silk Road from China to Europe, and people and ideas traveled along the same route.

    If Tehran has its way, the modern Silk Road will once again run across Afghanistan’s western border, and proceed through Iran. At least that is the ambition.

    On one side of the Afghan border, India has been building a road through southwestern Afghanistan to allow traders to bypass Pakistan, which has long restricted the transit of Afghan goods.

    Tehran’s goal is to join that route on the Iranian side of the border with road and rail links ending at the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf.

    “We said that Afghanistan would not be landlocked anymore and we would be at Afghanistan’s disposal,” said Mr. Bahrami, the Iranian ambassador in Kabul, stressing that Iran’s contribution to the Afghan road was not stalled even by its economic difficulties under sanctions.

    But Iran’s economic leverage comes at a price.

    Afghan officials say Iran’s support of the Taliban is aimed in part at disrupting development projects that might threaten its dominance. The Iranian goal, they contend, is to keep Afghanistan supplicant.

    The biggest competition is for water, and Afghans have every suspicion that Iran is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten its water supply.

    Iran has raised the issue of the dams in bilateral meetings, and President Hassan Rouhani recently criticized the projects as damaging to the environment.

    With the upheaval of 40 years of coups and wars in Afghanistan, large-scale development plans, like hydroelectric projects, have largely been stalled since the 1970s. Even after international assistance poured into Afghanistan after 2001, internal and external politics often got in the way.

    But President Ashraf Ghani, determined to generate economic growth, made a priority of completing the Salma dam in Herat Province, and has ordered work on another dam at Bakhshabad, to irrigate the vast western province of Farah.

    In Farah, despite the two calamitous Taliban offensives on the provincial capital in October and January, the Bakhshabad dam is the first thing everyone mentions.

    “We don’t want help from nongovernmental organizations or from the government,” said Mohammed Amin, who owns a flourishing vegetable farm, growing cucumbers and tomatoes under rows of plastic greenhouses. “We in Farah don’t want anything. Just Bakhshabad.”

    Afghanistan’s lack of irrigation makes it impossible to compete with Iranian produce prices, something Bakhshabad could solve, he said.

    The project is still only in the planning stage. But the dam, with its promise of irrigation and hydroelectricity for a population lacking both, is a powerful dream — if Iran does not thwart it.

    “The most important issue is water,” Mr. Lalai, the presidential adviser, said of relations with Iran. “Most of our water goes to our neighbors. If we are prosperous, we might give them less.”

    The death of Mullah Mansour removed Iran’s crucial link to the Taliban. But it has also fractured the Taliban, spurring a number of high-level defections and opening opportunities for others, including Iran, to meddle.

    An overwhelming majority of Taliban blame Pakistan for Mullah Mansour’s death. The strike deepened disillusionment with their longtime Pakistani sponsors.

    About two dozen Taliban commanders, among them senior leaders who had been close to Mullah Mansour, have since left their former bases in Pakistan.

    They have moved quietly into southern Afghanistan, settling back in their home villages, under protection of local Afghan security officials who hope to encourage a larger shift by insurgents to reconcile with the government.

    Those with family still in Pakistan live under close surveillance and control by Pakistani intelligence, said the former Taliban commander, who recently abandoned the fight and moved his family into Afghanistan to escape reprisals.

    He said he had become increasingly disaffected by Pakistan’s highhanded direction of the war. “We all know this is Pakistan’s war, not Afghanistan’s war,” he said. “Pakistan never wanted Afghanistan to be at peace.”

    The question now: Does Iran?

    Citing the threat from the Islamic State as an excuse, Iran may choose, with Russian help, to deepen a proxy war in Afghanistan that could undermine an already struggling unity government.

    Or it could encourage peace, as it did in the first years after 2001, for the sake of stability on at least one of its borders, prospering with Afghanistan.

    For now, Iran and Russia have found common cause similar to their partnership in Syria, senior Afghan officials and others warn.

    Emboldened by their experience in Syria, they seem to be building on their partnership to hurt America in Afghanistan, cautioned the political analyst Mr. Sharan.

    As American forces draw down in Afghanistan, jockeying for influence over the Taliban is only intensifying.

    “Pakistan is helping the Taliban straightforwardly,” said Mr. Jehan, the former Afghan intelligence official who is now governor of Farah. “Russia and Iran are indirectly helping the Taliban. We might come to the point that they interfere overtly.

    “I think we should not give them this chance,” he added. “Otherwise, Afghanistan will be given up to the open rivalry of these countries.”

    The former Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, warned that the country risked being pulled into the larger struggle between Sunni powers from the Persian Gulf and Shiite Iran.

    “Afghanistan should keep out the rivalry of the regional powers,” he said. “We are vulnerable.”

    Some officials are optimistic that Iran is not an enemy of Afghanistan, but the outlook is mixed.

    “There is a good level of understanding,” Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government’s chief executive, said of relations with Iran.

    “What we hear is that contacts with the Taliban are to encourage them to pursue peace rather than military activities,” he said.

    Mohammad Asif Rahimi, the governor of Herat, warned that if Farah had fallen to the Taliban, the entire western region would have been laid open for the insurgents.

    Iran’s meddling has now grown to the extent that it puts the whole country at risk of a Taliban takeover, not just his province, he said.

    But it could have been prevented, in the view of Mr. Sharan.

    “The fact is that America created this void,” he said. “This vacuum encouraged countries to get involved. The Syria issue gave confidence to Iran and Russia, and now that confidence is playing out in Afghanistan.”

    Nytimes

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    Iran

    The Tweet Trump Could Never Send Tehran

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    Photo
    The Hamoun wetlands in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province have dried up. Credit Behrouz Mehria/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

    After violent protests recently exploded across Iran, President Trump vowed to differentiate himself from President Barack Obama by openly tweeting his support for the demonstrators. It had no effect, though. One reason is that Trump could never send the really killer tweets — the ones that might have gone viral across Iran and rattled the regime.

    What would those have said? Something like:

    @realDonaldTrump “America stands with Iranian demonstrators!!! Why are so many from the countryside??? Because Iranian Revolutionary Guards mismanaged Iran’s water supply for decades. Stole all the water for their companies, cronies, pistachio farms and stupid dams!!! And now climate change and droughts are making it all worse, forcing Iranians off their land. Unfair!! Sad!!”

    The Iran protests were clearly fed by many streams — The Times told a harrowing tale last weekend of how corruption and Ponzi schemes at banks owned by Iran’s clerical regime and its allies had defrauded thousands of savers, and brought some into the streets. But environmental corruption was also a cause of anger.

    The Islamic regime and the Revolutionary Guards had ripped off the country’s natural wealth the same way they’d ripped off savers’ wealth. And now climate change is amplifying many of the worst impacts.

    That’s not something an American president who thinks climate change is a hoax can tweet about — but it is a key reason the street demonstrations were particularly intense in regions hard hit by a whirlwind of drought, extreme weather events and reckless water use practices imposed by Iran’s clerical rulers.

    Continue reading the main story

    “When people lose their lands they lose everything, and that means they aren’t scared of anything,” explained Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian exile geologist, and son of a watershed scientist, who grew up in southern Iran. “The water crisis is real and killing the country today. We are getting less precipitation, and the population is rising. There’s bad agricultural policies and bad water governance. It is like a time bomb.” Officials predict that millions of Iranians could be forced to flee their country before the end of the century.

    Here’s why: Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has built a crazy number of hydroelectric dams. According to a March 2015, report from Iran in The Financial Times, “Over the past three decades, Iran has built 600 dams — an average of 20 a year — to irrigate farms and provide power. It is unclear how much has been spent on these projects, though it is believed to be second only to gas and oil … and much of the money has been channeled through contractors linked to the Revolutionary Guard. Poor planning and 14 years of drought have rendered many of them useless and, in some cases, they have contributed to environmental damage in the semi-arid country, experts say.”

    Once some farmers found they no longer had water for their crops — because aquifers had been overused, or water had been diverted to big agribusinesses tied to the regime, or too many dams had been built and then warmer temperatures shrunk the lakes behind them and nearby wetlands — many of the farmers migrated to the margins of cities in search of employment, food and water.

    “The government is not giving the exact number of Iranians who fled the countryside and are now living in shanty towns, but it should well be over 16 million, up from 11 million in 2013,” added Kowsar, who, besides his water/geology expertise, is one of Iran’s most followed political cartoonists, which is what got him exiled. “These cities, where employment is scarce, have become hot spots of unrest,” particularly as the government cut back subsidies.

    A Jan. 8 essay on ClimateWire by Scott Waldman explained: “Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad understood that climate change and water mismanagement was ravaging family farms, and his government provided subsidies to families who struggled to put food on the table, said Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

    “When the current president, Hassan Rouhani, signaled that he would reduce those benefits, enraged Iranians across the nation’s arid countryside joined the wave of protests. ‘You have climate change, shortage of water, they can’t grow their crops, and now they’re getting their cash handouts taken away,’ said Handjani. ‘It’s a panoply of issues coming together at once.’”

    The Los Angeles Times reported from Iran on Jan. 17: “In the mountains of western Iran, the province of Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari is known for mile-high lagoons, flowing rivers and wetlands that attract thousands of species of migratory birds. But years of diminishing rainfall have shriveled water sources. Conditions worsened, residents say, after Iranian authorities began funneling water 60 miles away to the lowland city of Esfahan, sparking protests as far back as 2014. On Dec. 30 of last year, about 200 people gathered in front of the provincial governor’s office to protest the water transfer project. Their slogans soon morphed into chants of ‘Death to the dictator.’”

    The Tehran Times reported on Jan. 8 that, according to the head of drought and crisis management at Iran’s Meteorological Organization, “nearly 96 percent of Iran’s total area is suffering from different levels of prolonged drought.”

    Lake Urmia was once a giant saline lake, 87 miles wide, in northwest Iran. Beginning in the 1990s, though, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president at the time, started building lots of dams around the lake, an initiative followed by his successors, constricting the water flowing into Urmia. And because of those dams, a group of people — Revolutionary Guards contractors, people close to the Ministry of Energy and large agribusinesses that siphoned off the water — “got very rich,” explained Kowsar.

    As National Geographic put it in an August 2015, essay: “Now the lake, once one of the largest in the Middle East, looks more like a gigantic crime scene.” Its dried salts now mix with sand, fueling toxic wind storms.

    The Iran story is repeating itself across the Middle East — environmental stresses mixing with resentment over corruption and misgovernance, sparking uprisings. And it is only going to get worse.

    Between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s landmass was ravaged by the worst drought in the country’s modern history. It came after years of overpumping of aquifers by cronies of the regime. That drought forced 800,000 to one million Syrian farmers and herders to abandon their land and livestock and move to the edges of Syrian cities and towns, where they had to scrounge for work. The Assad regime did nothing for them, and they were among the first to join the revolution against it.

    The first Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia in late 2010, followed quickly by Egypt’s in early 2011, happened as world food prices were hitting record highs, largely because of a coincidence of extreme weather events: Droughts, wildfires and flooding in China, Russia, Ukraine, Australia and the U.S. sharply constricted their wheat exports. It was not an accident that the chant in the Egyptian revolution was: “Bread. Freedom. Dignity.”

    So, kids, if you want to understand the politics of the Middle East today, study Arabic and Farsi, Hebrew and Turkish — but most of all, study environmental science.

    Continue reading the main story

    After violent protests recently exploded across Iran, President Trump vowed to differentiate himself from President Barack Obama by openly tweeting his support for the demonstrators. It had no effect, though. One reason is that Trump could never send the really killer tweets — the ones that might have gone viral across Iran and rattled the regime.

    What would those have said? Something like:

    @realDonaldTrump “America stands with Iranian demonstrators!!! Why are so many from the countryside??? Because Iranian Revolutionary Guards mismanaged Iran’s water supply for decades. Stole all the water for their companies, cronies, pistachio farms and stupid dams!!! And now climate change and droughts are making it all worse, forcing Iranians off their land. Unfair!! Sad!!”

    The Iran protests were clearly fed by many streams — The Times told a harrowing tale last weekend of how corruption and Ponzi schemes at banks owned by Iran’s clerical regime and its allies had defrauded thousands of savers, and brought some into the streets. But environmental corruption was also a cause of anger.

    The Islamic regime and the Revolutionary Guards had ripped off the country’s natural wealth the same way they’d ripped off savers’ wealth. And now climate change is amplifying many of the worst impacts.

    That’s not something an American president who thinks climate change is a hoax can tweet about — but it is a key reason the street demonstrations were particularly intense in regions hard hit by a whirlwind of drought, extreme weather events and reckless water use practices imposed by Iran’s clerical rulers.

    “When people lose their lands they lose everything, and that means they aren’t scared of anything,” explained Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian exile geologist, and son of a watershed scientist, who grew up in southern Iran. “The water crisis is real and killing the country today. We are getting less precipitation, and the population is rising. There’s bad agricultural policies and bad water governance. It is like a time bomb.” Officials predict that millions of Iranians could be forced to flee their country before the end of the century.

    Here’s why: Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has built a crazy number of hydroelectric dams. According to a March 2015, report from Iran in The Financial Times, “Over the past three decades, Iran has built 600 dams — an average of 20 a year — to irrigate farms and provide power. It is unclear how much has been spent on these projects, though it is believed to be second only to gas and oil … and much of the money has been channeled through contractors linked to the Revolutionary Guard. Poor planning and 14 years of drought have rendered many of them useless and, in some cases, they have contributed to environmental damage in the semi-arid country, experts say.”

    Once some farmers found they no longer had water for their crops — because aquifers had been overused, or water had been diverted to big agribusinesses tied to the regime, or too many dams had been built and then warmer temperatures shrunk the lakes behind them and nearby wetlands — many of the farmers migrated to the margins of cities in search of employment, food and water.

    “The government is not giving the exact number of Iranians who fled the countryside and are now living in shanty towns, but it should well be over 16 million, up from 11 million in 2013,” added Kowsar, who, besides his water/geology expertise, is one of Iran’s most followed political cartoonists, which is what got him exiled. “These cities, where employment is scarce, have become hot spots of unrest,” particularly as the government cut back subsidies.

    A Jan. 8 essay on ClimateWire by Scott Waldman explained: “Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad understood that climate change and water mismanagement was ravaging family farms, and his government provided subsidies to families who struggled to put food on the table, said Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

    “When the current president, Hassan Rouhani, signaled that he would reduce those benefits, enraged Iranians across the nation’s arid countryside joined the wave of protests. ‘You have climate change, shortage of water, they can’t grow their crops, and now they’re getting their cash handouts taken away,’ said Handjani. ‘It’s a panoply of issues coming together at once.’”

    The Los Angeles Times reported from Iran on Jan. 17: “In the mountains of western Iran, the province of Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari is known for mile-high lagoons, flowing rivers and wetlands that attract thousands of species of migratory birds. But years of diminishing rainfall have shriveled water sources. Conditions worsened, residents say, after Iranian authorities began funneling water 60 miles away to the lowland city of Esfahan, sparking protests as far back as 2014. On Dec. 30 of last year, about 200 people gathered in front of the provincial governor’s office to protest the water transfer project. Their slogans soon morphed into chants of ‘Death to the dictator.’”

    The Tehran Times reported on Jan. 8 that, according to the head of drought and crisis management at Iran’s Meteorological Organization, “nearly 96 percent of Iran’s total area is suffering from different levels of prolonged drought.”

    Lake Urmia was once a giant saline lake, 87 miles wide, in northwest Iran. Beginning in the 1990s, though, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president at the time, started building lots of dams around the lake, an initiative followed by his successors, constricting the water flowing into Urmia. And because of those dams, a group of people — Revolutionary Guards contractors, people close to the Ministry of Energy and large agribusinesses that siphoned off the water — “got very rich,” explained Kowsar.

    As National Geographic put it in an August 2015, essay: “Now the lake, once one of the largest in the Middle East, looks more like a gigantic crime scene.” Its dried salts now mix with sand, fueling toxic wind storms.

    The Iran story is repeating itself across the Middle East — environmental stresses mixing with resentment over corruption and misgovernance, sparking uprisings. And it is only going to get worse.

    Between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s landmass was ravaged by the worst drought in the country’s modern history. It came after years of overpumping of aquifers by cronies of the regime. That drought forced 800,000 to one million Syrian farmers and herders to abandon their land and livestock and move to the edges of Syrian cities and towns, where they had to scrounge for work. The Assad regime did nothing for them, and they were among the first to join the revolution against it.

    The first Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia in late 2010, followed quickly by Egypt’s in early 2011, happened as world food prices were hitting record highs, largely because of a coincidence of extreme weather events: Droughts, wildfires and flooding in China, Russia, Ukraine, Australia and the U.S. sharply constricted their wheat exports. It was not an accident that the chant in the Egyptian revolution was: “Bread. Freedom. Dignity.”

    So, kids, if you want to understand the politics of the Middle East today, study Arabic and Farsi, Hebrew and Turkish — but most of all, study environmental science.



    Nytimes

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    Europe’s ‘concessions’ make Trump less committed to nuclear deal – Tehran

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    Tiny, Wealthy Qatar Goes Its Own Way, and Pays for It

    - xxqatar ss slide 9LA5 facebookJumbo - Tiny, Wealthy Qatar Goes Its Own Way, and Pays for It


    DOHA, Qatar — For the emir of Qatar, there has been little that money can’t buy.

    As a teenager he dreamed of becoming the Boris Becker of the Arab world, so his parents flew the German tennis star to Qatar to give their son lessons. A lifelong sports fanatic, he later bought a French soccer team, Paris Saint-Germain, which last summer paid $263 million for a Brazilian striker — the highest transfer fee in the history of the game.

    He helped bring the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at an estimated cost of $200 billion, a major coup for a country that had never qualified for the tournament.

    Now at age 37, the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has run into a problem that money alone cannot solve.

    Since June, tiny Qatar has been the target of a punishing air and sea boycott led by its largest neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Overnight, airplanes and cargo ships bound for Qatar were forced to change course, diplomatic ties were severed and Qatar’s only land border, a 40-mile stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia, slammed shut.

    Not even animals were spared. Around 12,000 Qatari camels, peacefully grazing on Saudi land, were expelled, causing a stampede at the border.

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    The Boycott

    One afternoon last August, I drove to Aqua Park, a water park in the desert 20 minutes outside Doha, to see how Qatar was surviving the boycott. Inside the park, where midday temperatures reached 120 degrees, men and women wearing swimsuits mingled freely, although bikinis were discouraged. Screaming children barreled down the Boomerango, the park’s largest ride. American warplanes rumbled overhead, bound for battle zones in Iraq and Syria.

    Aqua Park is a few hundred yards from Al Udeid, the American air base whose runway lights glitter in the distance. The base, with 10,000 American service personnel, has been Qatar’s strategic jewel for over a decade, one major reason it could defy its neighbors. Now the Emirates was pressuring the United States to close it.

    The park is a typical Qatari business in that no Qataris work there: The park’s manager, Mohammed Firdous Raj, is Malaysian, the lifeguards are Kenyan and other employees are Lebanese and Egyptian. Before the boycott, one quarter of its business came from Saudi tourists, who made the 25-minute drive from the border. But now the desert highway was half-empty, as were many hotels in Doha.

    “We’d like them to come back,” Mr. Raj said of the Saudis. But the park’s owner, a former Qatari government minister, had allowed him to discount ticket prices, so business was about the same. “It’s a pity about the Saudis,” he said with a shrug. “Either way, we will manage.”

    The boycott has inflicted some pain on Qatar. With its only land border closed, its ships blocked from passing through Emirati ports and its planes restricted from flying over neighboring airspace, import costs have soared. The stock exchange lost one-fifth of its value last year. Foreign workers, unable to party in Dubai on weekends, grumble about the claustrophobia of buttoned-up Doha. And the travel bans have torn apart families, whose relatives have straddled borders for centuries.

    But for the most part, daily life in Doha is largely unchanged. Pricey wine flows in five-star hotels, work continues on a new metro system, and a striking National Museum, shaped as a series of giant intersecting discs, is set to become the city’s latest architectural marvel.

    On weekends, young Qatari men go “dune bashing” — riding tricked-out four-wheel drive vehicles at high speed along mountainous dunes, sometimes flipping over. Qatar’s central bank says it has a $340 billion war chest to help weather the crisis.

    And the boycott has backfired in some respects. The trade restrictions have forced Qatar into deeper economic ties with Iran, while Tamim has become the object of a fervent personality cult. The emir’s image adorns billboards draped off skyscrapers, and he is lionized in saccharine songs hailing his steely leadership. “He’s the embodiment of the philosopher king,” said Dana al-Fardan, one such balladeer.

    His ministers, making a virtue of necessity, are developing new trade and transportation links. To make up for lost Saudi milk, they created a new dairy industry from scratch in the desert. In a surreal tableau one day in July, German cows toddled down the ramp of a Qatar Airways Airbus at the Doha airport, the first arrivals of around 4,000 cattle flown in from Europe, Australia and California.

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    A strident nationalism has displaced the old talk of “brotherly” ties between the countries. Qatari pilgrims claimed they had been prevented from traveling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and showing sympathy for Qatar has become a criminal offense in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

    Any hopes that the Trump administration could end the crisis were scuppered by its chaotic policy. Mediation efforts by Mr. Tillerson, who had decades of experience in Qatar as an energy executive, were repeatedly undercut by Mr. Trump, who at a Washington fund-raiser mocked the way that Qatar is pronounced.

    Although Mr. Trump has since stopped his attacks on Qatar, presenting himself as a mediator, some senior advisers continue the fight. Breitbart News Network, which until recently was run by Mr. Trump’s onetime ideological firebomber Stephen K. Bannon, has published dozens of articles attacking Qatar as a rogue ally.

    Is Qatar soft on terrorism? Some of the charges are red herrings, American officials say. Tamim cut funding to most extremist militias in Syria and Islamist groups in Libya in 2015, at the urging of the Obama administration. His cordial ties with Iran are a matter of necessity because the two countries share the giant gas field that is the source of Qatar’s wealth.

    Where Qatar does have a case to answer, officials say, is in its treatment of Qatari citizens accused of financing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Trials of accused financiers, when they take place, occur in secret, making it hard to know what punishment, if any, is imposed.

    Abd al-Rahman al-Nuaymi, a former university professor and financier who has been designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, was tried secretly in 2015 and acquitted. He now lives openly in Doha, albeit with restrictions on his banking and ability to travel, said a former United States treasury official who was briefed on the case. A senior Qatari official said that prosecutors were preparing to try him again.

    But similar charges can be laid at the feet of Qatar’s foes. The Saudis have long been accused of exporting radical Islam across the world through hard-line madrassas. Iran’s biggest trading partner in the region is not Qatar but Dubai. Human rights abuses and press freedom restrictions are far harsher in the Emirates.

    For Qatar’s supporters, the hypocrisy reveals what they say is the boycott’s true goal: to cut down or take out Qatar’s youthful emir, the royal who refuses to go along to get along.

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    Cold War in the Desert

    For Tamim, the ultimate aim of his neighbors is to oust him from power. In the interview with The Times, he cited as precedent the 1996 Saudi-sponsored coup attempt against his father. “This was always the warning at the back of our heads,” he said.

    His fears may be justified. In the early days of the boycott, two American officials said, Saudi and Emirati leaders mulled possible military action against Qatar. The precise details were unclear, but the talk was deemed serious enough for Mr. Tillerson to personally warn the Saudi and Emirati leaders against precipitous action. Mr. Trump later repeated that advice in a call to Saudi leaders.

    Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, denied in an interview that there was ever a military plan. “We never contemplated it,” he said.

    But even the suggestion of military action highlighted how the old rules have been shattered in the Gulf. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional body that is supposed to resolve such disputes, has been invisible during the crisis. Instead the Saudis have promoted a string of exiled Qatari businessmen as potential political rivals to Tamim.

    The Qataris appear to have returned fire on the hacking front. For months American news media outlets have received stolen emails intended to embarrass Mr. Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador. The emails appear to come from Russia, but Saudi media reports say Qatar was behind them.

    Qatar denied any involvement in the hacking. “Qatar, as a matter of policy and principle, does not engage in cyber crimes or traffic in ‘fake news,’” the government said in a statement to The Times on Sunday.

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    Nothing suggests that the dispute will be resolved anytime soon. Although the Saudis and Emiratis may have overestimated the boycott’s ability to pressure Qatar, they may feel they have little to lose by continuing it.

    “I think they are content to bleed Qatar,” said Mr. Roberts, the analyst. “There’s an indignant anger at what they see as a rich, cocooned, perfidious little state that is finally feeling the consequences of its actions.”

    But as the dispute moved to the skies last week, with accusations of Qatari warplanes buzzing Emirati commercial jets, it highlighted how easily the crisis could escalate.

    Both sides are bolstering their militaries. Since June, Tamim has ordered 36 F-15 warplanes from the United States, 24 Typhoon jets from Britain and 24 Rafale fighter jets from France — a sevenfold increase for an air force that currently has just 12 aircraft.

    In December, his foes announced a new Saudi-Emirati military and economic alliance that further sidelines the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar.

    Days later, Tamim hosted a lavish banquet for President Emmanuel Macron of France at Idam, a French restaurant on the top floor of the Museum of Islamic Art that offers a shimmering panorama over the Doha skyline.

    Over a sumptuous meal prepared by the celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, the two leaders toasted the deals they had signed that morning. The emir had ordered another 12 French fighter jets.

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    Qatar’s foes accuse it of financing terrorism, cozying up to Iran and harboring fugitive dissidents. They detest Al Jazeera, Qatar’s rambunctious and highly influential satellite network. And — although few say it openly — they appear intent on ousting Qatar’s young leader, Tamim, from his throne.

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    DOHA, Qatar — For the emir of Qatar, there has been little that money can’t buy.

    As a teenager he dreamed of becoming the Boris Becker of the Arab world, so his parents flew the German tennis star to Qatar to give their son lessons. A lifelong sports fanatic, he later bought a French soccer team, Paris Saint-Germain, which last summer paid $263 million for a Brazilian striker — the highest transfer fee in the history of the game.

    He helped bring the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at an estimated cost of $200 billion, a major coup for a country that had never qualified for the tournament.

    Now at age 37, the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has run into a problem that money alone cannot solve.

    Since June, tiny Qatar has been the target of a punishing air and sea boycott led by its largest neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Overnight, airplanes and cargo ships bound for Qatar were forced to change course, diplomatic ties were severed and Qatar’s only land border, a 40-mile stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia, slammed shut.

    Not even animals were spared. Around 12,000 Qatari camels, peacefully grazing on Saudi land, were expelled, causing a stampede at the border.

    Qatar’s foes accuse it of financing terrorism, cozying up to Iran and harboring fugitive dissidents. They detest Al Jazeera, Qatar’s rambunctious and highly influential satellite network. And — although few say it openly — they appear intent on ousting Qatar’s young leader, Tamim, from his throne.

    Tamim denies the accusations, and chalks up the animosity to simple jealousy.

    “They don’t like our independence,” he said in an interview in New York in September. “They see it as a threat.”

    The boycott turned out to be the first strike of a sweeping campaign by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, that has electrified the Middle East. Obsessed with remaking his hidebound country and curbing the regional ambitions of its nemesis, Iran, the young, hard-charging Saudi has imprisoned hundreds of rivals at a five-star hotel in Riyadh, strong-armed the prime minister of Lebanon in a failed stab at Iran and stepped up his devastating war in Yemen.

    The Saudi prince has shaped the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East and his endeavors could have far-reaching consequences, potentially driving up energy prices, upending Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and raising the chances of war with Iran.

    The Qatar dispute is perhaps the least understood piece of the action, but it has a particularly nasty edge.

    In September, at a normally soporific meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Saudi and Qatari diplomats exchanged barbed epithets like “rabid dog” and heated accusations of treachery and even cruelty to camels. “When I speak, you shut up!” yelled Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi.

    “No, you are the one who should shut up!” his Saudi counterpart shouted back.

    The highly personalized rancor has the unmistakable air of a family feud. Qataris, Saudis and Emiratis stem from the same nomadic tribes, share the same religion and eat the same food. So their dispute has shades of quarreling cousins, albeit ones armed with billions of dollars and American warplanes.

    The crisis took an alarming turn last week when the Emirates accused Qatar’s warplanes of harassing two Emirati passenger airliners as they crossed the Gulf. Untrue, said Qatar, which fired back with its own accusation that Emirati warplanes had already breached its airspace twice.

    That the other Gulf countries even care about Qatar enough to despise it is a relatively new development.

    For much of the 20th century, the country was a barren Persian Gulf backwater where pirates once lurked. Its people were desperately poor, typically diving for pearls in the summer and herding camels in the winter. For decades they lagged far behind their Saudi neighbors, who were in the midst of a heady oil boom. The ruling al-Thani family was riven by vicious internecine squabbles and periodic coups.

    Then, in 1971, Qatar struck gas.

    The discovery of the world’s largest gas field was initially a source of bitter disappointment. “People hoped for oil,” said Ahmed bin Hamad al-Attiyah, a former energy minister. But by the 1990s, new technology allowed gas to be liquefied and exported in tanker ships.

    The emir, Tamim’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took a huge gamble. Ignoring naysayers, he poured $20 billion into a sprawling liquefaction plant at Ras Laffan, on Qatar’s north coast, with help from the energy giant Exxon Mobil. The company was then headed by Rex W. Tillerson, who is now secretary of state.

    The bet paid off spectacularly. Gas boomed, and by 2010 Qatar accounted for 30 percent of the global market.

    Since then, Qatar’s citizens, today numbering 300,000, have become very rich, very fast. Their average income of $125,000 is the highest in the world, over twice that of the United States or Saudi Arabia. The state cocoons them with free land, cushy jobs and American universities. Gleaming supercars and limousines cruise along Doha’s palm-lined corniche. Poor Qataris are hard to find.

    The metamorphosis was equally dramatic for the Thanis. Once the lords of a desolate peninsula of sand dunes and salt flats, they have become strutting sophisticates on the global stage: style icons who are celebrated in Vanity Fair and Vogue; art titans who splurge hundreds of millions on a Cézanne or a Gauguin; and media moguls who built Al Jazeera, the groundbreaking television network that helped fan the Arab Spring in 2011.

    In June, Qatar’s national colors lit up the Empire State Building, in which it owns a stake, a mark of its punchy ambition.

    But Qatar’s swagger is deeply contentious among its neighbors. In their reach for global influence, the Thanis have pursued ambidextrous, sometimes contradictory policies — preaching the virtues of peace, education and women’s rights while bankrolling Islamist extremists in Syria and hosting the biggest United States military base in the Middle East.

    To Saudi Arabia and the Emirates — and Bahrain and Egypt, who have joined them in the boycott — Qatar is a nation of vexatious meddlers, intoxicated by its own wealth, that needs to be cut down to size.

    Three dueling, headstrong royals are at the center of the dispute.

    Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed, 32, is leading a campaign to overhaul and energize his stultified society, including with outlandish proposals such as a $500 billion city on the Red Sea run by robots. He has a staunch ally in Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, 56, the hawkish crown prince of the Emirates, who has built a formidable military and shares his Saudi counterpart’s deep hostility toward Iran.

    Both princes are arrayed against Tamim, the emir of Qatar. A towering man with a diplomatic mien, Tamim is in many respects a classic Gulf potentate: educated like his father at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, he has three wives and 10 children, and lives in several luxurious palaces in Doha, a futuristic city of glass towers and curling highways.

    His rise to power in 2013, at the age of 33, offered a stark contrast with the gerontocracy of Saudi Arabia, where rulers clung to their thrones till reaching their deathbeds. And his easy manner belies a stubborn streak that his neighbors see as the mark of a dangerous gadfly.

    The baroque feuding among the three leaders — a twisting tale of cyberespionage, propaganda salvos, palace intrigue and high-stakes desert hunts — is worthy of an ancient Gulf power drama. Played by rich men in flowing white robes known as thobes, it has been called the “Game of Thobes.” But it also represents a profound moment of reckoning for the glimmering city-states of the Gulf.

    Having largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011, they find themselves hurtling toward an uncertain new economic and political order. At the center of the tumult is Qatar, the Lilliputian contender that for years punched above its weight and is now thrust into the fight of its life.

    In downtown Doha, behind the imposing palace where the emir holds court twice a week, lies a discreet new museum that tells an ugly story with bracing honesty.

    Through a series of polished exhibits, the museum, the Bin Jelmood House, delves into Qatar’s ignominious history of slavery, which was not abolished here until 1952. An evocative video recreates the suffering of the African slaves shipped from Zanzibar to dive for pearls, the mainstay of Qatar’s economy until the mid-20th century. A price list outlines the trade’s heartless calculations: 1,200 rupees, then about $550, for a driver in 1926; 1,500 rupees for a cook in 1909.

    The museum, in its willingness to openly address the sins of the past, mirrors the image the Thanis seek to project for their country — open and enlightened, less dour than archconservative Saudi Arabia, more restrained than freewheeling Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

    While Saudi women will finally be allowed to drive in June, Qatari women have been driving for decades. In Qatar, there are cinemas, bars and even female race jockeys. Christians can worship openly. Although Qataris share the puritanical Wahhabi strand of Islam with Saudi Arabia, there are no public beheadings or other spectacles that offend the modern conscience.

    Tamim lauds his country’s democratic values. In 50 years, he recently predicted, Al Jazeera will be seen to have “changed the whole idea of free speech in the region.” In many respects, it already has.

    But the openness goes only so far.

    In 2012, a Qatari poet was sentenced to life in prison for insulting the royal family. (Tamim pardoned him in 2016.) Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel offers blistering coverage of other Arab heads of state but treats Qatar’s royals with kid gloves. Since 2016, the authorities have blocked Doha News, a rare online news outlet that provides critical reporting. In 2005, the government stripped 5,000 tribesmen, accused of disloyalty, of their Qatari nationality.

    Although foreign workers make up 90 percent of Qatar’s three million residents, they have paltry rights, and Qatar’s World Cup preparations have been marred by a stream of reports by human rights organizations about abuses of migrant workers. A new law announced in October could significantly improve the situation if it is put in place.

    Even the slavery museum is not quite as it seems. To avoid offending Qataris about a delicate aspect of their history, it opened in 2015 without the fanfare usually accorded a royal project.

    As a result, few Qataris seem to have heard of the museum, and it is often empty.

    For over a century, Qatar’s rulers were plagued by insecurity, usually at the hands of their own relatives.

    Tamim’s grandfather toppled a cousin as emir in 1972, only to be pushed from the throne himself by his son, Hamad, in 1995. The ousted emir, who learned of his fate while on vacation in Switzerland, denounced his son as an “ignorant man” and then retreated into exile.

    Once the gas billions flowed, starting in about 2000, family tensions eased, paving the way for an ambitious, reform-minded cast of royals.

    Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, 58, is one of the most famous people in the Arab world, known for her glittering gowns, ageless looks and advocacy of education and social issues. Sheikha Mozah, as she is known, behaves like a Western-style first lady, speaking at United Nations conferences and touring refugee camps in safari wear with a lightly bound scarf over her head.

    She carved out her own power base through a multibillion-dollar foundation that created a philharmonic orchestra by recruiting musicians from 30 countries, built an $8 billion research hospital and brought branches of American universities, including Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M, to Qatar.

    Tamim’s younger sister, Mayassa, is Qatar’s culture czarina — an art world behemoth who, at the age of 30, had an estimated annual budget of $1 billion. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York typically spends about $30 million on new acquisitions.) In 2008 she cajoled the architect I. M. Pei out of retirement to build the acclaimed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and later snapped up major works by Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst. When she bought Cézanne’s “Card Players,” with its un-Islamic scene of drinking and gambling, for an estimated $250 million in 2011, it was the world’s most expensive painting.

    In Europe, Qatari royals have a reputation as high rollers with a yen for ostentatious real-estate and aristocratic prestige. After the 2008 financial crash, they bought Greek islands, French castles and so many iconic London properties — including Harrods department store, a share in Heathrow Airport and the Shard, western Europe’s tallest building — that it periodically induces anxious headlines in the British press about Qatar’s owning “more of London than the Queen.”

    That much is true, British officials say, but Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t seem to mind: She has repeatedly dined at the $400 million Park Lane mansion of Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, a suave, thirtysomething cousin of the emir whose staff members are said to be dressed in the period style of the television series “Downton Abbey.”

    In the Middle East, though, Qatar’s rulers have deployed their wealth to assert their independence from their larger neighbors.

    For decades, Saudi Arabia, which is 186 times as large, treated Qatar as a virtual vassal state. In the 1940s, Saudi rulers took a slice of Qatar’s modest oil revenues; later they nibbled at Qatar’s territory and dictated its foreign and defense policy.

    Tamim’s father, Hamad, accused the Saudis of trying to oust him in a failed coup in 1996 — a bitter episode that has framed the decades of simmering rivalry ever since.

    Striking out on their own, the Qataris at first played the role of regional peacemaker, turning Doha into a sort of Geneva-on-the-Gulf where protagonists from wars in Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon could hash out their differences in five-star hotels. They embraced America, hosting a vast air base since 2003, the year of the Iraq war, and won popular influence through Al Jazeera, whose provocative style irked just about every Arab government.

    The Qataris hosted leaders from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, causing Israeli officials to call Doha a “Club Med for terrorists.”

    But it was the Arab Spring in 2011 that truly set Qatar apart. As grass-roots movements rose up against the established order across the Middle East, the Saudis and Emiratis were alarmed by the growing strength of political Islamists, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which they feared could spread chaos in their own countries.

    Qatar supported the Islamists.

    “We stood by the people,” Tamim told “60 Minutes” in October. “They stood by the regimes. I feel that we stood by the right side.”

    The emir could afford to be bold. Qatar had vast wealth, a sprawling American air base just a few miles from his palace and no domestic opposition to speak of.

    “There was a feeling they could do anything they wanted, as long as they threw enough money at the problem,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the author of “Qatar and the Arab Spring.” “Their self-confidence was at a peak.”

    But in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, frustration was brewing.

    Fittingly, the alliance between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and his Emirati counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, was cemented with a falcon hunt, a cherished rite of Gulf royalty that involves elaborate entourages and great expense — a single hunting falcon can cost $250,000.

    In February 2016, the two princes traveled to the eastern desert of Saudi Arabia on a hunting safari, followed by summer shooting expeditions in France and Wales, trips that bonded the hyperactive 32-year-old Saudi and the older, like-minded Emirati. As well as a modernizing vision for their countries, they share a penchant for Shakespearean drama.

    After Mohammed bin Salman ousted his rival for the throne in June, royal photographers filmed the prince kissing his rival’s hand, then his knee, in a sign of respect. Hours later the man was locked in his palace.

    Their military alliance has drawn accusations of overreach. In Yemen, where they lead a devastating yet ineffective air war against the Iran-aligned Houthi faction, their forces face accusations of committing war crimes and stoking famine.

    “They are two peas in a pod who see the need for unusual action in unusual times,” said David B. Roberts, a Gulf expert at King’s College London.

    They are also united by a desire to put Tamim in his place.

    Until recently, the royal rivalry was most evident in their global contest for the most expensive and attention-grabbing ventures. In the Emirates, Dubai has the world’s tallest building, while Qatar has the 2022 World Cup and a number of American universities.

    In the art world, a Saudi royal bought Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million in November, eclipsing Qatar’s Cézanne purchase. The da Vinci painting, reported to have been bought for the crown prince, will hang in Abu Dhabi, which recently opened an extension to the Louvre.

    They flame each other through their media. Al Jazeera gives free rein to Saudi dissidents, while Sheikha Mozah is the object of lurid, often misogynistic insults in the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media, where she is portrayed as a power-hungry manipulator of weak men.

    But at its core the rivalry is political. It matters little that Qatar lost its Arab Spring bets: Across the region, Islamist forces bankrolled by Doha are vanquished or in retreat. Still, Qatar’s neighbors view it with near pathological suspicion.

    That mistrust burst into the open in 2014 when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, setting off a diplomatic crisis that ended nine months later with a smooth reassurance from Tamim that he would meet their concerns.

    Then last year, without warning, those tensions spiked again.

    The crisis that set off the Gulf’s biggest confrontation in decades started with a series of random, seemingly unrelated events. And in vintage 2017 fashion, they involved fake news and the new American president, Donald J. Trump.

    In March, a sulfurous dispute erupted over the fate of Alaa Alsiddiq, an Emirati dissident who has been living in Doha since 2013. After she published an article on Al Jazeera’s website about women’s rights in the Gulf, the Emiratis, who had canceled her passport, renewed longstanding demands that Tamim send her home.

    The emir refused, telling one Western ambassador that he feared she could be tortured or killed. Emirati fury grew.

    A second instance involved a huge ransom payment. In April, a private Qatari jet carrying $300 million landed in Iraq to free a party of 26 Qatari falcon hunters, including nine royals, who had been kidnapped by a pro-Iranian militia. Although who ultimately benefited remains shrouded in mystery, Tamim’s critics pointed to the episode as proof of his willingness to recklessly indulge extremists.

    It also offered a powerful talking point with the new American president.

    Even before Mr. Trump landed in Saudi Arabia in May, on the first foreign trip of his presidency, he appeared to be firmly in the Saudi camp. For months, the Saudi and Emirati leadership had cultivated a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law.

    Mr. Kushner, a foreign policy neophyte, absorbed the princes’ views on the region, including their hostility to Qatar, a senior State Department official said, describing the relationships as very close.

    In Riyadh, Mr. Trump signaled his burgeoning relationship by posing alongside 81-year-old King Salman with their hands on a glowing orb — an image that was meant to project solidarity but which gave them the appearance of movie villains and inspired a rash of internet memes.

    Mr. Trump also met with Tamim, and the Qatari leader thought it went well. But two days later, back in Doha, the emir was shaken from his sleep with disturbing news: Someone had hacked the state-run Qatar News Agency and posted on its website a report of the emir calling Iran a “superpower,” lauding Hamas and speculating that Mr. Trump might not last long in power.

    The report was pure fiction, but Qatar’s neighbors pounced on it as the real thing. Within minutes, pundits at Emirati and Saudi television stations were expounding on the perfidy of Qatar and issuing heated denunciations. Tamim frantically called his ministers and had the article taken down.

    Thinking the problem solved, he settled in to watch a big National Basketball Association game, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, his troubles had just started.

    Over the following weeks, Emirati and Saudi news outlets accelerated their attacks on Qatar, accusing it of threatening Gulf stability. Several conservative think tanks in Washington joined the chorus. Then on June 5, without warning, the four-country boycott crashed onto Qatar.

    Mr. Trump was eager to take credit.

    “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” he wrote in a tweet the next day. “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”

    American intelligence officials determined that the planting of the fake news story had been orchestrated by the Emirates, which had been quietly pushing for a boycott of Qatar since 2016, a United States official told The New York Times.

    “The smoking gun leads to Abu Dhabi,” the seat of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, he said, citing briefings from intelligence officials. “There is no ambiguity.” Moreover, the official said, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had prior knowledge of the ruse and had signaled his approval.

    Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates’ ambassador to Washington, said his country “categorically denied” any involvement in the hack. The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.

    One afternoon last August, I drove to Aqua Park, a water park in the desert 20 minutes outside Doha, to see how Qatar was surviving the boycott. Inside the park, where midday temperatures reached 120 degrees, men and women wearing swimsuits mingled freely, although bikinis were discouraged. Screaming children barreled down the Boomerango, the park’s largest ride. American warplanes rumbled overhead, bound for battle zones in Iraq and Syria.

    Aqua Park is a few hundred yards from Al Udeid, the American air base whose runway lights glitter in the distance. The base, with 10,000 American service personnel, has been Qatar’s strategic jewel for over a decade, one major reason it could defy its neighbors. Now the Emirates was pressuring the United States to close it.

    The park is a typical Qatari business in that no Qataris work there: The park’s manager, Mohammed Firdous Raj, is Malaysian, the lifeguards are Kenyan and other employees are Lebanese and Egyptian. Before the boycott, one quarter of its business came from Saudi tourists, who made the 25-minute drive from the border. But now the desert highway was half-empty, as were many hotels in Doha.

    “We’d like them to come back,” Mr. Raj said of the Saudis. But the park’s owner, a former Qatari government minister, had allowed him to discount ticket prices, so business was about the same. “It’s a pity about the Saudis,” he said with a shrug. “Either way, we will manage.”

    The boycott has inflicted some pain on Qatar. With its only land border closed, its ships blocked from passing through Emirati ports and its planes restricted from flying over neighboring airspace, import costs have soared. The stock exchange lost one-fifth of its value last year. Foreign workers, unable to party in Dubai on weekends, grumble about the claustrophobia of buttoned-up Doha. And the travel bans have torn apart families, whose relatives have straddled borders for centuries.

    But for the most part, daily life in Doha is largely unchanged. Pricey wine flows in five-star hotels, work continues on a new metro system, and a striking National Museum, shaped as a series of giant intersecting discs, is set to become the city’s latest architectural marvel.

    On weekends, young Qatari men go “dune bashing” — riding tricked-out four-wheel drive vehicles at high speed along mountainous dunes, sometimes flipping over. Qatar’s central bank says it has a $340 billion war chest to help weather the crisis.

    And the boycott has backfired in some respects. The trade restrictions have forced Qatar into deeper economic ties with Iran, while Tamim has become the object of a fervent personality cult. The emir’s image adorns billboards draped off skyscrapers, and he is lionized in saccharine songs hailing his steely leadership. “He’s the embodiment of the philosopher king,” said Dana al-Fardan, one such balladeer.

    His ministers, making a virtue of necessity, are developing new trade and transportation links. To make up for lost Saudi milk, they created a new dairy industry from scratch in the desert. In a surreal tableau one day in July, German cows toddled down the ramp of a Qatar Airways Airbus at the Doha airport, the first arrivals of around 4,000 cattle flown in from Europe, Australia and California.

    A strident nationalism has displaced the old talk of “brotherly” ties between the countries. Qatari pilgrims claimed they had been prevented from traveling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and showing sympathy for Qatar has become a criminal offense in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

    Any hopes that the Trump administration could end the crisis were scuppered by its chaotic policy. Mediation efforts by Mr. Tillerson, who had decades of experience in Qatar as an energy executive, were repeatedly undercut by Mr. Trump, who at a Washington fund-raiser mocked the way that Qatar is pronounced.

    Although Mr. Trump has since stopped his attacks on Qatar, presenting himself as a mediator, some senior advisers continue the fight. Breitbart News Network, which until recently was run by Mr. Trump’s onetime ideological firebomber Stephen K. Bannon, has published dozens of articles attacking Qatar as a rogue ally.

    Is Qatar soft on terrorism? Some of the charges are red herrings, American officials say. Tamim cut funding to most extremist militias in Syria and Islamist groups in Libya in 2015, at the urging of the Obama administration. His cordial ties with Iran are a matter of necessity because the two countries share the giant gas field that is the source of Qatar’s wealth.

    Where Qatar does have a case to answer, officials say, is in its treatment of Qatari citizens accused of financing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Trials of accused financiers, when they take place, occur in secret, making it hard to know what punishment, if any, is imposed.

    Abd al-Rahman al-Nuaymi, a former university professor and financier who has been designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, was tried secretly in 2015 and acquitted. He now lives openly in Doha, albeit with restrictions on his banking and ability to travel, said a former United States treasury official who was briefed on the case. A senior Qatari official said that prosecutors were preparing to try him again.

    But similar charges can be laid at the feet of Qatar’s foes. The Saudis have long been accused of exporting radical Islam across the world through hard-line madrassas. Iran’s biggest trading partner in the region is not Qatar but Dubai. Human rights abuses and press freedom restrictions are far harsher in the Emirates.

    For Qatar’s supporters, the hypocrisy reveals what they say is the boycott’s true goal: to cut down or take out Qatar’s youthful emir, the royal who refuses to go along to get along.

    For Tamim, the ultimate aim of his neighbors is to oust him from power. In the interview with The Times, he cited as precedent the 1996 Saudi-sponsored coup attempt against his father. “This was always the warning at the back of our heads,” he said.

    His fears may be justified. In the early days of the boycott, two American officials said, Saudi and Emirati leaders mulled possible military action against Qatar. The precise details were unclear, but the talk was deemed serious enough for Mr. Tillerson to personally warn the Saudi and Emirati leaders against precipitous action. Mr. Trump later repeated that advice in a call to Saudi leaders.

    Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, denied in an interview that there was ever a military plan. “We never contemplated it,” he said.

    But even the suggestion of military action highlighted how the old rules have been shattered in the Gulf. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional body that is supposed to resolve such disputes, has been invisible during the crisis. Instead the Saudis have promoted a string of exiled Qatari businessmen as potential political rivals to Tamim.

    The Qataris appear to have returned fire on the hacking front. For months American news media outlets have received stolen emails intended to embarrass Mr. Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador. The emails appear to come from Russia, but Saudi media reports say Qatar was behind them.

    Qatar denied any involvement in the hacking. “Qatar, as a matter of policy and principle, does not engage in cyber crimes or traffic in ‘fake news,’” the government said in a statement to The Times on Sunday.

    Nothing suggests that the dispute will be resolved anytime soon. Although the Saudis and Emiratis may have overestimated the boycott’s ability to pressure Qatar, they may feel they have little to lose by continuing it.

    “I think they are content to bleed Qatar,” said Mr. Roberts, the analyst. “There’s an indignant anger at what they see as a rich, cocooned, perfidious little state that is finally feeling the consequences of its actions.”

    But as the dispute moved to the skies last week, with accusations of Qatari warplanes buzzing Emirati commercial jets, it highlighted how easily the crisis could escalate.

    Both sides are bolstering their militaries. Since June, Tamim has ordered 36 F-15 warplanes from the United States, 24 Typhoon jets from Britain and 24 Rafale fighter jets from France — a sevenfold increase for an air force that currently has just 12 aircraft.

    In December, his foes announced a new Saudi-Emirati military and economic alliance that further sidelines the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar.

    Days later, Tamim hosted a lavish banquet for President Emmanuel Macron of France at Idam, a French restaurant on the top floor of the Museum of Islamic Art that offers a shimmering panorama over the Doha skyline.

    Over a sumptuous meal prepared by the celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, the two leaders toasted the deals they had signed that morning. The emir had ordered another 12 French fighter jets.

    Nytimes

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