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How Corruption and Cronyism in Banking Fueled Iran’s Protests

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Photo
Exchange rates posted on a store window on Thursday in Tehran’s financial district. Credit Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

TEHRAN — At 25 percent, the interest rate paid on a savings account at the Caspian Finance and Credit Institution in Tehran was a better return than Mehrdad Asgari could earn investing in his own business renting out construction equipment. So in December 2016, he jumped at the chance, depositing $42,000 in a savings account.

Before long though, Caspian stopped allowing withdrawals. After three months, it stopped paying interest. Finally, in May, it shut its doors for good — becoming one of the largest in a long series of failures of Iranian financial institutions in recent years. The closings have destroyed the savings of thousands of people, imperiled the banking system and helped fuel the antigovernment protests that roiled the country late last year.

The weeklong demonstrations across Iran, centered in religiously conservative, working class towns and cities rather than Tehran, were the broadest display of discontent since the Green Movement protests in 2009, following a disputed presidential election. The outpouring of anger was directed not only at President Hassan Rouhani, who won re-election promising to revitalize the economy, but also the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Thousands of people were arrested and 25 were killed, some of them, families of the victims say, at the hands of their jailers.

“I got angry and swore at them,” Mr. Asgari said recently, referring to Caspian, adding that he joined other jilted depositors in demonstrations that he had learned about on social media.

The cascade of defaults, economists say, was not just the result of risky banking practices, but also a case study in official corruption — a major reason Iranians found their losses so infuriating. Adding to their outrage, Iranian officials made a series of statements blaming the victims for not being more careful with their money.

Continue reading the main story

Many of the institutions, including those that merged in 2016 to form Caspian, were allowed to gamble with deposits or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years, in part because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or other semiofficial investment funds in the Iranian state.

“If there is a little less corruption, our problems will be solved,” demonstrators have chanted at protests against the financial failures.

Bijan Khajepour, an Iranian economist based in Vienna, estimated that as many as hundreds of thousands of people lost money because of the collapsing financial institutions. Iranians have a term for the growing class of victims: “property losers,” or “mal-baakhteganin Persian.

Many of the failing institutions sank the money into speculative investments during a real estate bubble, lent to well-connected friends or charged usurious interest rates to desperate borrowers. Now, regulators have quietly steered many of the companies into mergers with larger banks to try to absorb their losses, but that has created a worsening problem of bad loans and overvalued assets throughout the banking system.

Economists say that as many as 40 percent of the loans carried on the books of Iranian banks may be delinquent.

“The whole financial system in Iran is in a very fragile state,” said Borghan N. Narajabad, an economist in Washington who has studied the system.

The International Monetary Fund warned last month that Iran’s banks and lenders “need urgent restructuring and recapitalization,” calling for write-downs of overvalued assets and a crackdown on loans to insiders. The problem has grown so big, the fund warned, that the money required to prop up the banks will “cause government debt and interest outlays to rise substantially.”

Photo
Women hold signs denouncing financial institutions during a protest driven by anger over economic problems in Tehran last October. Credit Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Even Iran’s supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, has acknowledged responsibility for the growing number of victims of “problematic financial institutions.”

“These appeals must be dealt with and heard out,” he said this month. “I myself am responsible; all of us must follow this approach.”

The corruption underlying the bank failures has long been an open secret. In December, a lawmaker, Mahmoud Sadeghi, released a document listing the Top 20 debtors who had failed to meet payment deadlines for Sarmayeh Bank, which is co-owned by a pension fund for teachers. The loans totaled $1.9 billion, and almost all appeared to be held by well-known insiders.

Among them was Hossein Hedayati, a business tycoon and former member of the Revolutionary Guards, whose swift rise was so conspicuous that websites speculated about the sources of his sudden wealth. The document released by the lawmaker showed that Mr. Hedayati owed $285 million, and in a television program discussing the loan, another lawmaker, Mohammad Hassannejad, accused Mr. Hedayati of using a series of front companies to swing the loans and hide his role.

Mr. Hedayati dialed in to the program, sputtering with rage; he denied borrowing from Sarmayeh and threated to “sue everyone,” but has yet to follow through on the threat.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the new Islamic Republic initially nationalized all banks, among other industries. It also created a variety of semiofficial holding companies controlled by the supreme leader, senior clerics or top military commanders. Over the years, many of the companies have evolved into sprawling conglomerates with major roles in even the ostensibly private economy.

Clerics controlled religious foundations, called bonyads, that acquired commercial businesses. The largest of these, under the supreme leader, now makes up “15 to 20 percent” of the Iranian economy, according to an estimate by Hooshang Amirahmadi, an economist at Rutgers University who studies Iran. The elite Revolutionary Guard Corps controls a separate business empire.

All the semiofficial holding companies have major advantages over private businesses in favorable access to capital, tax exemptions and political connections. And most or all of them have been plagued by accusations of inefficiency and mismanagement, in addition to insider dealing and other forms of corruption.

Government reformers took steps to open up the banking business in the late 1990s and early 2000s, first by allowing religious foundations to set up loosely regulated savings and loans, ostensibly to serve the poor. The opening of private banks or the sale of shares in state banks soon followed.

But under a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came to power in 2005, semiofficial bodies controlled by clerics, the Revolutionary Guards or their allies dominated the newly private financial sector. An internal study produced in 2013 showed that semiofficial state bodies owned seven of the 17 private banks. Among them, the Revolutionary Guards controlled at least two, while the army, the police, the municipality of Tehran and a giant religious foundation close to the Guards controlled the others.

Among those financial institutions not directly controlled by these semiofficial bodies, the largest were usually run by individuals close to the same ruling elite, economists and diplomats say. They say that made it almost impossible for even the best-intentioned regulators to police the banks.

“The involvement of opaque government institutions like the Revolutionary Guards works contrary to transparency, and the lack of transparency is a recipe for poor banking practices,” said Sir Simon Gass, who was the British ambassador to Tehran from 2009 to 2011, in a recent interview. “The Central Bank of Iran tries to inject discipline into the system but with limited success.”

The outsize returns promised by the banks and financial institutions lured capital that might better have gone to more productive uses, contributing to an economic downturn brought on, in part, by international sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear program. Economists say that helps explain why most sectors of the Iranian economy outside the oil industry have yet to reap the benefits of the sanctions’ repeal after the nuclear deal with the West.

Photo
The Caspian Finance and Credit Institution in Tehran was closed due to bankruptcy. Credit Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

When lenders began to fail over the past few years, some senior Iranian officials tried to blame the borrowers, noting that many of the institutions were not officially licensed or guaranteed by the Central Bank.

“How many times do you want to be bitten by a snake from the same hole?” asked Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, a government spokesman, in an interview with the semiofficial news agency ILNA. Officials, he added, “told people several times but still they invested.”

Mohammad Bagher Olfat, a Muslim cleric who is deputy chief of the judiciary, said that jilted borrowers shared the blame with the lenders and regulators.

“Yes, their money is gone, but they shouldn’t expect the state to pay for their loss,” he told the same news agency.

It was not just the buyer-beware response of officials in the absence of oversight and transparency that outraged the victims. In 2016, Iranians were scandalized by leaks about the high salaries of executives at state-run companies, including $50,000 bonuses paid to eight managers of a state-owned insurance company (when an Iranian laborer might earn $200 a month).

In that context, the release of a draft budget that proposed raising outlays for clerics’ pet projects and their families while eliminating the $12 a month cash subsidy provided to 30 million Iranians and raising fuel prices by 50 percent provided the spark that ignited the protests.

They were upset to read about the $2 million — a 9 percent increase — that went to the son of the late Ayatollah Shahab ad-Din Muhammad Hussein Marashi Najafi to maintain his father’s library, and the $15 million provided to the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to publish the late leader’s works.

But some Iranians had already had enough. When Mr. Asgari was told in May that Caspian was closing without repaying his $42,000, he stepped outside and checked the encrypted social media app Telegram, where he found many groups for “property losers” victimized by Caspian and others like it.

“We organized demonstrations in front of their head office,” he said. Bowing to pressure, the government eventually refunded most of his original deposit but deducted the three interest payments he had received. (The government has since tried to block the use of Telegram in Iran.)

Arash Tajaloo, 42, a civil engineer in Tehran, deposited a total of $414,000 with Caspian in the spring of 2016, when the institution was promising him interest payments of as much as 30 percent a year. Caspian started restricting his withdrawals after six months, offering the excuse of temporary technical problems.

“They kept buying time, week after week,” he said in an interview over Telegram.

A lawsuit he filed was consolidated into a class action, “given the large number of cases,” he said. He says he joined protests in front of Parliament, the presidential palace and the residence of the supreme leader, and took part in a 33-day sit-in outside the courthouse.

Caspian has promised to repay him about one-eighth of his original deposits, he said, but he has yet to see any of it.

“We still have not received either our deposits or the interest on them for 13 months,” he said.

Continue reading the main story

TEHRAN — At 25 percent, the interest rate paid on a savings account at the Caspian Finance and Credit Institution in Tehran was a better return than Mehrdad Asgari could earn investing in his own business renting out construction equipment. So in December 2016, he jumped at the chance, depositing $42,000 in a savings account.

Before long though, Caspian stopped allowing withdrawals. After three months, it stopped paying interest. Finally, in May, it shut its doors for good — becoming one of the largest in a long series of failures of Iranian financial institutions in recent years. The closings have destroyed the savings of thousands of people, imperiled the banking system and helped fuel the antigovernment protests that roiled the country late last year.

The weeklong demonstrations across Iran, centered in religiously conservative, working class towns and cities rather than Tehran, were the broadest display of discontent since the Green Movement protests in 2009, following a disputed presidential election. The outpouring of anger was directed not only at President Hassan Rouhani, who won re-election promising to revitalize the economy, but also the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Thousands of people were arrested and 25 were killed, some of them, families of the victims say, at the hands of their jailers.

“I got angry and swore at them,” Mr. Asgari said recently, referring to Caspian, adding that he joined other jilted depositors in demonstrations that he had learned about on social media.

The cascade of defaults, economists say, was not just the result of risky banking practices, but also a case study in official corruption — a major reason Iranians found their losses so infuriating. Adding to their outrage, Iranian officials made a series of statements blaming the victims for not being more careful with their money.

Many of the institutions, including those that merged in 2016 to form Caspian, were allowed to gamble with deposits or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years, in part because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or other semiofficial investment funds in the Iranian state.

“If there is a little less corruption, our problems will be solved,” demonstrators have chanted at protests against the financial failures.

Bijan Khajepour, an Iranian economist based in Vienna, estimated that as many as hundreds of thousands of people lost money because of the collapsing financial institutions. Iranians have a term for the growing class of victims: “property losers,” or “mal-baakhteganin Persian.

Many of the failing institutions sank the money into speculative investments during a real estate bubble, lent to well-connected friends or charged usurious interest rates to desperate borrowers. Now, regulators have quietly steered many of the companies into mergers with larger banks to try to absorb their losses, but that has created a worsening problem of bad loans and overvalued assets throughout the banking system.

Economists say that as many as 40 percent of the loans carried on the books of Iranian banks may be delinquent.

“The whole financial system in Iran is in a very fragile state,” said Borghan N. Narajabad, an economist in Washington who has studied the system.

The International Monetary Fund warned last month that Iran’s banks and lenders “need urgent restructuring and recapitalization,” calling for write-downs of overvalued assets and a crackdown on loans to insiders. The problem has grown so big, the fund warned, that the money required to prop up the banks will “cause government debt and interest outlays to rise substantially.”

Even Iran’s supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, has acknowledged responsibility for the growing number of victims of “problematic financial institutions.”

“These appeals must be dealt with and heard out,” he said this month. “I myself am responsible; all of us must follow this approach.”

The corruption underlying the bank failures has long been an open secret. In December, a lawmaker, Mahmoud Sadeghi, released a document listing the Top 20 debtors who had failed to meet payment deadlines for Sarmayeh Bank, which is co-owned by a pension fund for teachers. The loans totaled $1.9 billion, and almost all appeared to be held by well-known insiders.

Among them was Hossein Hedayati, a business tycoon and former member of the Revolutionary Guards, whose swift rise was so conspicuous that websites speculated about the sources of his sudden wealth. The document released by the lawmaker showed that Mr. Hedayati owed $285 million, and in a television program discussing the loan, another lawmaker, Mohammad Hassannejad, accused Mr. Hedayati of using a series of front companies to swing the loans and hide his role.

Mr. Hedayati dialed in to the program, sputtering with rage; he denied borrowing from Sarmayeh and threated to “sue everyone,” but has yet to follow through on the threat.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the new Islamic Republic initially nationalized all banks, among other industries. It also created a variety of semiofficial holding companies controlled by the supreme leader, senior clerics or top military commanders. Over the years, many of the companies have evolved into sprawling conglomerates with major roles in even the ostensibly private economy.

Clerics controlled religious foundations, called bonyads, that acquired commercial businesses. The largest of these, under the supreme leader, now makes up “15 to 20 percent” of the Iranian economy, according to an estimate by Hooshang Amirahmadi, an economist at Rutgers University who studies Iran. The elite Revolutionary Guard Corps controls a separate business empire.

All the semiofficial holding companies have major advantages over private businesses in favorable access to capital, tax exemptions and political connections. And most or all of them have been plagued by accusations of inefficiency and mismanagement, in addition to insider dealing and other forms of corruption.

Government reformers took steps to open up the banking business in the late 1990s and early 2000s, first by allowing religious foundations to set up loosely regulated savings and loans, ostensibly to serve the poor. The opening of private banks or the sale of shares in state banks soon followed.

But under a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came to power in 2005, semiofficial bodies controlled by clerics, the Revolutionary Guards or their allies dominated the newly private financial sector. An internal study produced in 2013 showed that semiofficial state bodies owned seven of the 17 private banks. Among them, the Revolutionary Guards controlled at least two, while the army, the police, the municipality of Tehran and a giant religious foundation close to the Guards controlled the others.

Among those financial institutions not directly controlled by these semiofficial bodies, the largest were usually run by individuals close to the same ruling elite, economists and diplomats say. They say that made it almost impossible for even the best-intentioned regulators to police the banks.

“The involvement of opaque government institutions like the Revolutionary Guards works contrary to transparency, and the lack of transparency is a recipe for poor banking practices,” said Sir Simon Gass, who was the British ambassador to Tehran from 2009 to 2011, in a recent interview. “The Central Bank of Iran tries to inject discipline into the system but with limited success.”

The outsize returns promised by the banks and financial institutions lured capital that might better have gone to more productive uses, contributing to an economic downturn brought on, in part, by international sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear program. Economists say that helps explain why most sectors of the Iranian economy outside the oil industry have yet to reap the benefits of the sanctions’ repeal after the nuclear deal with the West.

When lenders began to fail over the past few years, some senior Iranian officials tried to blame the borrowers, noting that many of the institutions were not officially licensed or guaranteed by the Central Bank.

“How many times do you want to be bitten by a snake from the same hole?” asked Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, a government spokesman, in an interview with the semiofficial news agency ILNA. Officials, he added, “told people several times but still they invested.”

Mohammad Bagher Olfat, a Muslim cleric who is deputy chief of the judiciary, said that jilted borrowers shared the blame with the lenders and regulators.

“Yes, their money is gone, but they shouldn’t expect the state to pay for their loss,” he told the same news agency.

It was not just the buyer-beware response of officials in the absence of oversight and transparency that outraged the victims. In 2016, Iranians were scandalized by leaks about the high salaries of executives at state-run companies, including $50,000 bonuses paid to eight managers of a state-owned insurance company (when an Iranian laborer might earn $200 a month).

In that context, the release of a draft budget that proposed raising outlays for clerics’ pet projects and their families while eliminating the $12 a month cash subsidy provided to 30 million Iranians and raising fuel prices by 50 percent provided the spark that ignited the protests.

They were upset to read about the $2 million — a 9 percent increase — that went to the son of the late Ayatollah Shahab ad-Din Muhammad Hussein Marashi Najafi to maintain his father’s library, and the $15 million provided to the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to publish the late leader’s works.

But some Iranians had already had enough. When Mr. Asgari was told in May that Caspian was closing without repaying his $42,000, he stepped outside and checked the encrypted social media app Telegram, where he found many groups for “property losers” victimized by Caspian and others like it.

“We organized demonstrations in front of their head office,” he said. Bowing to pressure, the government eventually refunded most of his original deposit but deducted the three interest payments he had received. (The government has since tried to block the use of Telegram in Iran.)

Arash Tajaloo, 42, a civil engineer in Tehran, deposited a total of $414,000 with Caspian in the spring of 2016, when the institution was promising him interest payments of as much as 30 percent a year. Caspian started restricting his withdrawals after six months, offering the excuse of temporary technical problems.

“They kept buying time, week after week,” he said in an interview over Telegram.

A lawsuit he filed was consolidated into a class action, “given the large number of cases,” he said. He says he joined protests in front of Parliament, the presidential palace and the residence of the supreme leader, and took part in a 33-day sit-in outside the courthouse.

Caspian has promised to repay him about one-eighth of his original deposits, he said, but he has yet to see any of it.

“We still have not received either our deposits or the interest on them for 13 months,” he said.

Nytimes

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Iran

Iran nuclear deal collapse could spell grave consequences for the Korean peninsula – Lavrov

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Iran

Warming, Water Crisis, Then Unrest: How Iran Fits an Alarming Pattern

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UNITED NATIONS — Nigeria. Syria. Somalia. And now Iran.

In each country, in different ways, a water crisis has triggered some combination of civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency or even full-scale war.

Photo
Protestors in Tehran on Jan. 5. “Water is not going to bring down the government,” one analyst said. “But it’s a component — in some towns, a significant component — of grievances and frustrations.” Credit Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

In the era of climate change, their experiences hold lessons for a great many other countries. The World Resources Institute warned this month of the rise of water stress globally, “with 33 countries projected to face extremely high stress in 2040.”

A water shortage can spark street protests: Access to water has been a common source of unrest in India. It can be exploited by terrorist groups: The Shabab has sought to take advantage of the most vulnerable drought-stricken communities in Somalia. Water shortages can prompt an exodus from the countryside to crowded cities: Across the arid Sahel, young men unable to live off the land are on the move. And it can feed into insurgencies: Boko Haram stepped into this breach in Nigeria, Chad and Niger.

Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, lasting roughly 14 years.

In short, a water crisis — whether caused by nature, human mismanagement, or both — can be an early warning signal of trouble ahead. A panel of retired United States military officials warned in December that water stress, which they defined as a shortage of fresh water, would emerge as “a growing factor in the world’s hot spots and conflict areas.”

Continue reading the main story

“With escalating global population and the impact of a changing climate, we see the challenges of water stress rising with time,” the retired officials concluded in the report by CNA, a research organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

Climate change is projected to make Iran hotter and drier. A former Iranian agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, once famously said that water scarcity, if left unchecked, would make Iran so harsh that 50 million Iranians would leave the country altogether.

Continue reading the main story

Want the latest climate news in your inbox? You can sign up here to receive Climate Fwd:, our new email newsletter.

UNITED NATIONS — Nigeria. Syria. Somalia. And now Iran.

In each country, in different ways, a water crisis has triggered some combination of civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency or even full-scale war.

In the era of climate change, their experiences hold lessons for a great many other countries. The World Resources Institute warned this month of the rise of water stress globally, “with 33 countries projected to face extremely high stress in 2040.”

A water shortage can spark street protests: Access to water has been a common source of unrest in India. It can be exploited by terrorist groups: The Shabab has sought to take advantage of the most vulnerable drought-stricken communities in Somalia. Water shortages can prompt an exodus from the countryside to crowded cities: Across the arid Sahel, young men unable to live off the land are on the move. And it can feed into insurgencies: Boko Haram stepped into this breach in Nigeria, Chad and Niger.

Iran is the latest example of a country where a water crisis, long in the making, has fed popular discontent. That is particularly true in small towns and cities in what is already one of the most parched regions of the world. Farms turned barren, lakes became dust bowls. Millions moved to provincial towns and cities, and joblessness led to mounting discontent among the young. Then came a crippling drought, lasting roughly 14 years.

In short, a water crisis — whether caused by nature, human mismanagement, or both — can be an early warning signal of trouble ahead. A panel of retired United States military officials warned in December that water stress, which they defined as a shortage of fresh water, would emerge as “a growing factor in the world’s hot spots and conflict areas.”

“With escalating global population and the impact of a changing climate, we see the challenges of water stress rising with time,” the retired officials concluded in the report by CNA, a research organization based in Arlington, Virginia.

Climate change is projected to make Iran hotter and drier. A former Iranian agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, once famously said that water scarcity, if left unchecked, would make Iran so harsh that 50 million Iranians would leave the country altogether.

Not entirely. Water alone doesn’t explain the outbreak of protests that began in early January and spread swiftly across the country. But as David Michel, an analyst at the Stimson Center put it, the lack of water — whether it’s dry taps in the city, or dry wells in the countryside, or dust storms rising from a shrinking Lake Urmia — is one of the most common, most visible markers of the government’s failure to deliver basic services.

“Water is not going to bring down the government,” he said. “But it’s a component — in some towns, a significant component — of grievances and frustrations.”

Managing water, he said, is the government’s “most important policy challenge.”

Like many countries, from India to Syria, Iran after the 1979 revolution set out to be self-sufficient in food. It wasn’t a bad goal, in and of itself. But as the Iranian water expert Kaveh Madani points out, it meant that the government encouraged farmers to plant thirsty crops like wheat throughout the country. The government went further by offering farmers cheap electricity and favorable prices for their wheat — effectively a generous two-part subsidy that served as an incentive to plant more and more wheat and extract more and more groundwater.

The result: “25 percent of the total water that is withdrawn from aquifers, rivers and lakes exceeds the amount that can be replenished” by nature, according to Claudia Sadoff, a water specialist who prepared a report for the World Bank on Iran’s water crisis.

Iran’s groundwater depletion rate is today among the fastest in the world, so much so that by Mr. Michel’s calculations, 12 of the country’s 31 provinces “will entirely exhaust their aquifers within the next 50 years.” In parts of the country, the groundwater loss is causing the land to sink.

Water is a handy political tool, and to curry favor with their rural base, Iran’s leaders — and particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — dammed rivers across the country to divert water to key areas. As a result, many of Iran’s lakes have shrunk. That includes Lake Urmia, once the region’s largest saltwater lake, which has diminished in size by nearly 90 percent since the early 1970s.

According to the government, Iran expects a 25 percent decline in surface water runoff — rainfall and snow melt — by 2030. In the region as a whole, summers are predicted to get hotter, by two to three degrees Celsius at current rates of warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Rains are projected to decline by 10 percent.

A 2015 study by two scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted that, at current rates of warming, “many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival.”

For the leaders of water-stressed countries, the most sobering lesson comes from nearby Syria. Its drought, stretching from 2006 to 2009, prompted a mass migration from country to city and then unemployment among the young. Frustrations built up. And in 2011, street protests broke out, only to be crushed by the government of Bashar al-Assad. It piled on to long-simmering frustrations of Syrians under Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule. A civil war erupted, reshaping the Middle East.

Water, said Julia McQuaid, the deputy director of CNA, doesn’t lead straight to conflict. “It can be catalyst,” she said. “It can be a thing that breaks the system.”



Nytimes

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