The Biden administration is making a final effort before May 1 to show progress in slow-moving negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban, according to American officials, are stalling.

The administration is pushing the two sides to participate in a peace conference in Turkey to demonstrate progress. Simultaneously, the American and Taliban negotiators continue to try to cement a 90-day reduction in violence, but so far, both sides have hesitated to agree.

The classified intelligence assessment of the Taliban largely taking control assumes that the Afghan government and the Taliban fail to reach a political agreement and that a civil war would erupt after the American exit.

Administration officials warned that making any intelligence estimate is challenging, that predictions about the future are always imprecise and that various factors influence the analysis.

For example, intelligence estimates depend on whether international funding for the Afghan government remains in place. The more money the United States and its allies provide Afghanistan, the longer the government in Kabul should be able to retain control of some of the country. But some officials said that history shows that once American troops are withdrawn, Congress moves quickly to cut financial support for partner forces.

There is also a debate in Washington about the seriousness of the threat of a return of terrorist groups. For now, the number of Qaeda and Islamic State militants in Afghanistan is very small, a senior U.S. official said.

Some senior lawmakers with access to the classified assessments said that it was not certain that if the United States withdrew that Al Qaeda could rebuild a base in Afghanistan from which to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States.

“What is that threat really going to be?” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington State and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said this week during a virtual conference on Afghanistan. “This isn’t the 1990s when Al Qaeda set up camps, and they had the Taliban and no one was paying attention to them.”

Mr. Smith said keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan actually increased the risk to Americans there, incurred greater financial costs and handed a propaganda victory and recruiting tool to the United States’ enemies.

Some counterterrorism officials believe that Al Qaeda would prefer to re-establish its headquarters in Afghanistan, should American troops withdraw. But other officials said Al Qaeda’s leadership might be just as likely to look to Africa or the Middle East.

While American intelligence officials have been mostly focused on the threat of Al Qaeda, senior military officials have also raised the prospect of a growth in the power of the Afghanistan arm of the Islamic State.

But in recent years, the Taliban have been at odds with the Islamic State. The two groups have fought, and the Taliban have for the most part pushed back Islamic State forces.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where ISIS and the Taliban would strategically cooperate or collaborate in Afghanistan,” said Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. analyst. “The Taliban is an ideological organization, and that ideology is Afghan-centric and not aligned with ISIS’ overarching goals.”

The intelligence estimate predicted that the Taliban would relatively swiftly expand their control over Afghanistan, suggesting that the Afghan security forces remain fragile despite years of training by the American military and billions of dollars in U.S. funding.

Offensives last year in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, two areas in the country’s south where the Taliban have long held sway, demonstrated that the police and local forces are unable to hold ground, prompting elite commando forces and regular army troops to take their place — a tactic that is likely unsustainable in the long run.

The Afghan security forces still rely heavily on U.S. air support to hold territory, which American military leaders acknowledged this week. It is unclear whether that American air power would continue if U.S. forces left Afghanistan, perhaps launched from bases in the Persian Gulf, although the Pentagon has drawn up such options for the White House.

“The capabilities that the U.S. provides for the Afghans to be able to combat the Taliban and other threats that reside in Afghanistan are critical to their success,” Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the head of Special Operations Command, told the Senate on Thursday.

Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Kabul.

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Israel’s Shadow War With Iran Moves Out to Sea

JERUSALEM — The sun was rising on the Mediterranean one recent morning when the crew of an Iranian cargo ship heard an explosion. The ship, the Shahr e Kord, was about 50 miles off the coast of Israel, and from the bridge they saw a plume of smoke rising from one of the hundreds of containers stacked on deck.

The state-run Iranian shipping company said the vessel had been heading to Spain and called the explosion a “terrorist act.”

But the attack on the Shahr e Kord this month was just one of the latest salvos in a long-running covert conflict between Israel and Iran. An Israeli official said the attack was retaliation for an Iranian assault on an Israeli cargo ship last month.

Since 2019, Israel has been attacking ships carrying Iranian oil and weapons through the eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas, opening a new maritime front in a regional shadow war that had previously played out by land and in the air.

Iranian efforts to circumvent American sanctions on its oil industry.

But the conflict’s expansion risks the escalation of what has been a relatively limited tit-for-tat, and it further complicates efforts by the Biden administration to persuade Iran to reintroduce limits on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

“This is a full-fledged cold war that risks turning hot with a single mistake,” said Ali Vaez, Iran program director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “We’re still in an escalatory spiral that risks getting out of control.”

Since 2019, Israeli commandos have attacked at least 10 ships carrying Iranian cargo, according to an American official and a former senior Israeli official. The real number of targeted ships may be higher than 20, according to an Iranian Oil Ministry official, an adviser to the ministry and an oil trader.

first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Most of the ships were carrying fuel from Iran to its ally Syria, and two carried military equipment, according to an American official and two senior Israeli officials. An American official and an Israeli official said the Shahr e Kord was carrying military equipment toward Syria.

The Israeli government declined to comment.

has accelerated in recent years. Iran has been arming and financing militias throughout the region, notably in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon, where it supports Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political movement that is a longtime enemy of Israel.

Israel has tried to counter Iran’s power play by launching regular airstrikes on Iranian shipments by land and air of arms and other cargo to Syria and Lebanon. Those attacks have made those routes riskier and shifted at least some of the weapons transit, and the conflict, to the sea, analysts said.

Israel has also sought to undermine Iran’s nuclear program through assassinations and sabotage on Iranian soil, and both sides are accused of cyberattacks, including a failed Iranian attack on an Israeli municipal water system last April and a retaliatory Israeli strike on a major Iranian port.

Iran’s Quds force was blamed for a bomb that exploded near Israel’s embassy in New Delhi in January. And 15 militants linked to Iran were arrested last month in Ethiopia for plotting to attack Israeli, American and Emirati targets.

The sum is an undeclared conflict that neither side wants to escalate into frontal combat.

a major Iranian nuclear site in July and the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist last November. Israel has not publicly acknowledged either operation.

The Israeli offensive against Iranian shipping has two goals, analysts and officials said. The first is to prevent Tehran from sending equipment to Lebanon to help Hezbollah build a precision missile program, which Israel considers a strategic threat.

The second is to dry up an important source of oil revenue for Tehran, building on the pressure American sanctions have inflicted. After the United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s fuel industry in late 2018, the Iranian government became more reliant on clandestine shipping.

Sima Shine, a former head of research at Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

The attacks typically feature limpet mines and sometimes torpedoes, the American official said. They generally target the ships’ engines or propellers, one Israeli official said. And they are intended to cripple but not sink the ships, the American and Israeli officials said.

a recent oil spill that left tons of tar on the beaches of Israel and Lebanon.

Within Israel, there is concern among maritime experts that the cost of a sea war may exceed its benefit.

While the Israeli Navy can make its presence felt in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, it is less effective in waters closer to Iran. And that could make Israeli-owned ships more vulnerable to Iranian attacks as they pass Iran’s western shores on their way to ports in the Gulf, said Shaul Chorev, a retired Israeli admiral who now heads the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa.

“Israeli strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and related waterways will undoubtedly grow,” he wrote in a statement, “and the Israeli Navy does not have the capabilities to protect these interests.”

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv, Farnaz Fassihi from New York, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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Suez Canal Blocked After Container Ship Gets Stuck

CAIRO — An enormous container ship became stuck while traversing the Suez Canal late Tuesday, blocking traffic through one of the world’s most important shipping arteries and threatening to add one more burden to a global shipping industry already battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The ship, which was heading from China to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, ran aground amid poor visibility and high winds from a sandstorm that struck much of northern Egypt this week, according to George Safwat, a spokesman for the authority that oversees the canal. The storm caused an “inability to direct the ship,” he said in a statement.

By Wednesday morning, more than 100 ships were stuck at each end of the canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and carries roughly 10 percent of worldwide shipping traffic.

Dozens of tugboats raced to try and wrench it free as crews on the land brought heavy equipment to dig out the land where it sat wedged.

posted on Tuesday evening. “Looks like we might be here for a little bit …”

The Suez Canal is a key artery for oil flows from the Persian Gulf region to Europe and North America. Roughly 5 percent of globally traded crude oil and 10 percent of refined petroleum products passed through the canal before the pandemic, estimated David Fyfe, chief economist at Argus Media, a market research firm.

After the canal was snarled, there was a 2.85 percent jump in the price of Brent crude, the international benchmark, on Wednesday to $62.52 a barrel.

But Mr. Fyfe said that because the demand for oil remained relatively weak amid the pandemic, a short-term outage is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the market.

“I don’t think this is going to fundamentally change market sentiment,” he said. “A lot will depend on how quickly they can get the vessel cleared.”

Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Peter S. Goodman from London. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo, and Stanley Reed from London.

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Israel’s Budding Ties With U.A.E. Are Soured by Electioneering

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel presents himself as a global leader who is in a different league than his rivals — one who can keep Israel safe and promote its interests on the world stage. But strains in his relations with two important Arab allies, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have dented that image in the fraught run-up to Israel’s do-over election.

Mr. Netanyahu’s personal ties with King Abdullah II of Jordan have long been frosty, even though their countries have had diplomatic relations for decades, and recently took a turn for the worse. And the Israeli leader’s efforts to capitalize on his new partnership with the United Arab Emirates ahead of the close-fought election on Tuesday have injected a sour note into the budding relationship between the two countries.

Senior Emirati officials sent clear signals over the past week that the Persian Gulf country would not be drawn into Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign for re-election, a rebuke that dented his much-vaunted foreign policy credentials.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has always portrayed himself as the only candidate who can protect Israel’s security and ensure its survival in what has mostly been a hostile region. He has touted peaceful relations with moderate Arab states, including Jordan and the Emirates, as crucial to defend Israel’s borders and as a buttress against Iranian ambitions in the region.

on trial on corruption charges.

The first signs of trouble came after plans for Mr. Netanyahu’s first open visit to the Emirates were canceled. Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a landmark agreement last August to normalize their relations, the first step in a broader regional process that came to be known as the Abraham Accords and which was a signature foreign policy achievement of the Trump administration.

Mr. Netanyahu was supposed to fly to the Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, on March 11 for a whirlwind meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the country’s de facto ruler. But the plan went awry amid a separate diplomatic spat with Jordan, one of the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

The day before the scheduled trip, a rare visit by the Jordanian crown prince to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — one of Islam’s holiest sites — was scuttled because of a disagreement between Jordan and Israel over security arrangements for the prince.

wrote on Twitter.

“The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” he added.

flooded into Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the country, despite pandemic restrictions. Now, analysts said, the honeymoon is over even though there has been no indication the normalization deal is in danger of collapse.

The relationship is essentially “on hold,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and Jordan.

Beyond Mr. Netanyahu’s electioneering, Mr. Eran said, the Emiratis were upset because as part of the normalization deal, Israel dropped its opposition to the Emiratis’ buying F-35 fighter jets and other advanced weaponry from the United States, but that transaction is now stalled and under review by the Biden administration.

In addition, he said, the Emirati leaders were concerned about what might happen after the election in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu has said his goal is to form a right-wing coalition with parties that put a priority on annexing West Bank territory in one way or another.

“They are not canceling the deal, but they don’t want more at this point,” Mr. Eran said of the Emiratis. “They want to see what the agenda of the new government will be.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s political opponents have seized upon the diplomatic debacle.

“Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s conduct in recent years has done significant damage to our relations with Jordan, causing Israel to lose considerable defensive, diplomatic and economic assets,” said Benny Gantz, the Israeli defense minister and a centrist political rival.

“I will personally work alongside the entire Israeli defense establishment to continue strengthening our relationship with Jordan,” he added, “while also deepening ties with other countries in the region.”

Mr. Netanyahu has said that four more countries are waiting to sign normalization agreements with Israel, without specifying which ones.

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Amazon Is Hiring in Saudi Arabia, Taking Advantage of Online Shift

Amazon. AMZN 1.55% com said it is hiring 1,500 people in Saudi Arabia this year, becoming the latest tech giant to beef up inside the kingdom as pandemic-fed demand for online services rises in the Arab world’s largest economy.

The hiring is a small move for a company with over a million permanent employees around the world. Still, it comes as other tech companies deepen their footprint in the kingdom, which has had a mixed record luring foreign partners to help it wean its economy off oil.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google and China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have recently announced partnerships with Saudi state-owned companies to host cloud centers. Huawei Technologies Co. has said it would open its largest flagship store outside China in Riyadh.

Amazon’s modest bet is also notable coming after a feud between Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spilled into public in recent years. Critical columns written by Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Washington Post, which Mr. Bezos bought in 2013 as a personal investment, sowed frustration in Riyadh.

Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi operatives in 2018. The U.S. last month declassified a report that accused the prince of approving the killing. Prince Mohammed has said he took responsibility for the killing because it happened on his watch, but denied ordering it.

In 2019, Mr. Bezos suggested a possible Saudi government link to a leak of embarrassing personal photos, an allegation Saudi Arabia has denied. The Wall Street Journal reported the brother-in-law of Mr. Bezos’ girlfriend Lauren Sanchez leaked the photos. Mr. Sanchez has denied that.

A Saudi Royal Palace handout shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in Riyadh in November 2016.

Photo: bandar al-jaloud/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

This year Mr. Bezos said he would step down as CEO later this year but stay on at Amazon as executive chairman.

In 2018, before the murder, Amazon was in talks to build data centers in Saudi Arabia that would have given Amazon more access to the Middle Eastern market and aided the prince’s efforts to cultivate new, non-oil industries. The plan hasn’t yet moved forward.

The Khashoggi murder sparked intense international criticism of Saudi Arabia and prompted many businesses to cut ties for a time. Now, some Western firms are starting to consider investing again.

Tech companies, in particular, are returning, said Sam Blatteis, who previously led Google’s government relations in the Persian Gulf region. “The virus is moving tech from the periphery to center stage” of the kingdom’s business-transformation plans, said Mr. Blatteis, who now runs MENA Catalysts, a consulting firm advising foreign companies.

The closure of many malls and shops and the need to stay at home has driven e-commerce sales of basic items such as food and increased the consumption of online entertainment. Warner Music Group Corp. has agreed to buy a stake in Saudi-owned Rotana Music to take advantage of the region’s demographics, the companies said last month.

Amazon didn’t provide financial details of its expansion when it announced the new jobs on Wednesday. It said it was bolstering its fulfillment network’s storage capacity and increasing its delivery network area.

“These new investments reiterate our commitment to Saudi Arabia, contributing to the local economy through the creation of new job opportunities.” said Prashant Saran, Amazon’s operations director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Our investments in technology and infrastructure align with Saudi’s digital transformation goals.”

Amazon launched its Prime service in Saudi Arabia in January. Last June it rebranded, a regional competitor it acquired in 2017, as The company didn’t immediately comment further on its Saudi business. Mr. Bezos didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia combines a large revenue base as the world’s largest oil exporter with a young population of nearly 35 million. Almost three-quarters of Saudis are connected to social media—higher than rates in the U.S. and China, according to German online database Statista. That has revived appetite from big technology companies who had often shunned the kingdom following an international outcry over Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

In January, Saudi Arabia said Chinese smartphones company Huawei had agreed to open its largest flagship store outside China, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. And in late December, Google signed up to host cloud centers with state-run oil monopoly Saudi Arabian Oil Co., days before Alibaba joined for the same service with government-owned Saudi Telecom Co., or STC. South Korea’s electronic giant Samsung has set up a data-focused training center in collaboration with the crown prince’s personal foundation, Misk.

Write to Benoit Faucon at and Stephen Kalin at

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China Buys More Iranian and Venezuelan Oil, in a Test for Biden

China has sharply increased its imports of oil from Iran and Venezuela in a challenge to two Biden administration foreign-policy priorities, according to U.S. officials, undermining key diplomatic leverage Washington needs to restart long-stalled negotiations.

China is expected to import 918,000 barrels a day from Iran in March, which would be the highest volume since a full U.S. oil embargo was imposed against Tehran two years ago, according to commodities-data company Kpler.

That trend is confirmed by other shipping trackers, some of which see those sales at 1 million barrels a day.

“If it sells 1 million barrels a day at current prices, Iran has no incentive to negotiate,” said Sara Vakhshouri, president of Washington-based SVB Energy International and an expert on Iran’s oil industry.

President Biden’s administration has sought to engage with Iran to return to a 2015 nuclear deal that was exited by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But Tehran has rebuffed overtures so far.

Abadan oil refinery in southwest Iran in 2019. Iran has helped Venezuela by supplying petroleum products, selling diesel and other critical energy needs in exchange for Venezuelan oil and gold

Photo: essam al-sudani/Reuters

China’s oil purchases from Venezuela, where the U.S. has been trying to use sanctions to pressure the Maduro regime into holding credible democratic elections, also are growing, according to London financial data provider Refinitiv.

Rising oil shipments to China, Iranian and Venezuelan officials said, followed Mr. Biden’s offer of relief to Iran in return for the country’s compliance with an international nuclear agreement and to Venezuela if it organized free elections. Mr. Trump pursued a policy of escalating sanctions pressure against both countries.

China is also increasingly flouting international sanctions on North Korea and is no longer trying to hide some of its smuggling activity as it seeks to help Pyongyang, U.S. officials said recently.

Combined with rising oil prices, the developments have diminished pressure for Tehran and Caracas to negotiate with Washington, these people said.

“The informal Chinese purchases have reduced the need to negotiate on oil sanctions” for Tehran, one Iran-focused U.S. official said.

The State Department, asked about the effects of Chinese imports of Iranian crude on efforts to re-engage Tehran, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, has dismissed the idea that the Biden administration would ease sanctions without action by Tehran to curb violations of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

“If the Iranians are under the impression that absent any movement on their part to resume full compliance with the JCPOA that we will offer favors or unilateral gestures, that’s a misimpression,” Mr. Price told reporters earlier this week.

Since November, Iranian oil traders say they have been approached for new sales by Asian buyers seeking to take advantage of discounted prices because purchasers feel sanctions pressure will ease under the Biden administration.


How can the U.S. enforce sanctions on oil shipments from Iran? Join the conversation below.

Iranian officials and traders have become increasingly adept at evading sanctions, carrying out covert transfers in the Persian Gulf and in South Asia to conceal the origin of their cargo and finding new ways to get paid by using nonbanking platforms such as cryptocurrencies.

On Monday, Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said Iran’s oil exports had increased in recent months, though he didn’t give any details.

“There were certain problems with money transfers. So we had to come up with certain plans, methods for bringing in the oil export revenues, and we recently had a breakthrough,” Mr. Jahangiri was quoted as saying by state-run news agency IRNA.

Kpler analyst Homayoun Falakshahi said ship tracking showed the fastest-growing buyer was state-run China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. , or Sinopec, the country’s largest refiner. After cutting staffing and spending in the past two years, Sinopec is posting new job offers online and talking with the government on doubling its production in the country, according to former Iranian oil officials and an adviser to the company.

Officials from Sinopec and the Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t return requests for comment. Chinese officials have long criticized U.S. policy in Iran and Venezuela, as well as its financial diplomacy, as unilateral and coercive.

A Sinopec gas station in Shanghai in January.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

Washington still hopes to entice the Islamic Republic with the more substantial relief that would come with the release of billions of dollars in frozen oil money and a return to official crude sales. In exchange, the U.S. wants Iran to comply with the nuclear deal despite repeated breaches and wants to tighten controls on Tehran’s ballistic program and other efforts that weren’t covered under the original nuclear agreement.

Meanwhile, Iran has helped Venezuela by supplying petroleum products, selling diesel and other critical energy needs in exchange for Venezuelan oil and gold. That oil is then sold off in global markets, yielding revenue for Iran and reinforcing Mr. Maduro politically.

For the U.S.-China relationship, already strained by a range of security and economic disputes, Beijing’s crude trade with two of Washington’s top foes adds another major irritant.

“This is a complex relationship and maybe the most consequential relationship for both of our countries, and it has adversarial aspects, it has competitive aspects, and it has cooperative aspects,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this week.

U.S. officials have reminded China that firms helping import oil from Iran risk sanctions and say Beijing could face punishment over its Venezuelan trade. The State Department declined to comment on its communications with China.

“The Maduro regime has adapted to oil sanctions, finding a way around them to deliver oil to China and Russia, and Iran has been helping them,” one senior administration official said. “So we’re going to use our sanction tools to make sure that we’re eliminating those options” for the Maduro government, the official said.

Others, however, say the administration will also be careful to balance such policies with American economic interests. “In some cases, we have not sanctioned [China] because of the impact on our economy. If we hit hard, they could retaliate,” said another U.S. official.

Biden administration officials are meeting Chinese counterparts for the first time this week in Alaska.

Write to Benoit Faucon at and Ian Talley at

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Israeli Strikes Target Iranian Oil Bound for Syria

WASHINGTON—Israel has targeted at least a dozen vessels bound for Syria and mostly carrying Iranian oil out of concern that petroleum profits are funding extremism in the Middle East, U.S. and regional officials say, in a new front in the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Since late 2019, Israel has used weaponry including water mines to strike Iranian vessels or those carrying Iranian cargo as they navigate toward Syria in the Red Sea and in other areas of the region. Iran has continued its oil trade with Syria, shipping millions of barrels and contravening U.S. sanctions against Iran and international sanctions against Syria.

Some of the naval attacks also have targeted Iranian efforts to move other cargo including weaponry through the region, according to U.S. officials.

The attacks on the tankers carrying Iranian oil haven’t been previously disclosed. Iranian officials have reported some of the attacks earlier and have said they suspect Israeli involvement.

Israel hasn’t commented previously on such incidents and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office referred questions to the Israeli military, which declined to comment on any Israeli role in the attacks on the Iranian ships. Iranian officials at the country’s United Nations mission didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Damascus has said disruptions of Iranian oil imports are causing shortages for Syrians. Syria and Iran have denied funding terrorism and say their alliance is aimed at countering such crime.

The disclosure of the Israeli campaign at sea marks a new dimension in its campaign to counter Iran’s military and economic entrenchment and its support of allied groups in the region. Since 2018, Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes, mostly in Syria, to rout Iranian-backed groups, weapons and influence across the region.


How do you think the Biden administration should approach tensions in the Middle East? Join the conversation below.

The disclosure also comes amid escalating tensions in the region and as the Biden administration considers its approach to confront Iran. The administration has said it wants to return to the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, but progress has stalled over demands by each side for concessions by the other.

Iran’s Syria-bound oil cargoes are controlled by officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the U.S. has alleged in court cases filed to seize the ships. The purpose of the Iranian operations are to circumvent sanctions on both Iran and Syria to fund IRGC, these court cases say. Such tankers often carry hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil.

The National Iranian Oil Tanker Company says this image from 2019 shows one of its tankers sailing in the Red Sea.

Photo: National Iranian Oil Tanker Company/WANA/Reuters

Shippers often declare false destinations, use old, rusted tankers to avoid notice, and sometimes transfer oil from one ship to another at sea to avoid detection, regional military officials said.

Israel has also publicly accused Iran of subterfuge and sabotage in recent weeks. Mr. Netanyahu last week blamed Iran for an explosion that ripped through the MV Helios Ray, an Israeli-owned cargo ship. Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied it was behind the attack.

U.S. officials blamed Iran for a string of 2019 attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf region, some using mines.

Israel’s environmental protection minister, Gila Gamliel, last week also accused Tehran of being behind Israel’s largest-ever ecological disaster, an oil spill of hundreds of tons of tar that covered Israel’s 100-mile plus coastline last month. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had no evidence to suggest that Iran deliberately caused the oil spill.

Experts say the string of attacks against Iranian tankers has stemmed from perceived inaction by the international community, particularly after Iran broke a promise not to deliver oil to Syria from a seized tanker.

‘Israel stepped up the game beyond sanctions to sabotage.’

— Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that opposes the Iran deal and urges a hard line against Tehran, said Israel and the U.S. have long set their sights on Iranian oil revenue.

“Israel stepped up the game beyond sanctions to sabotage,” he said. “The Red Sea sabotage is keeping with a broader economic warfare campaign.”

Among the dozen attacks on ships carrying Iranian oil are three such strikes in 2019, according to a shipping professional. Ships used by the Islamic Republic were targeted six times in 2020, according to a second shipping professional, in Tehran.

The second professional said Tehran has kept quiet on the attacks. “We are trying to keep a low profile,” he said. “It would look like a sign of weakness” if Iran complained and failed to react with a military response, he said.

In an episode last month, suspected Israeli operatives attached a limpet mine to attack an Iranian vessel as it anchored near Lebanon to deliver Iran oil to Syria, according to the first shipping professional. Israel’s military declined to comment on the incident.

Limpet mines are typically attached secretly to the hull of ships in port and detonated later, blowing holes in the sides of the vessels.

The Biden administration’s first known military action was an airstrike on facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups, in response to earlier attacks against U.S. forces. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he was confident the U.S. had hit its target. (First published 2/26/2021) Photo: Alex Brandon/Associated Press

On Thursday, a Telegram messaging channel close to the Iranian navy posted pictures purporting to show a fire on board an Iranian contained vessel, the Shahr e Kord, near Latakia, Syria. It said the vessel had been attacked by missiles. It couldn’t be determined whether the incident was related to other strikes on Iranian vessels.

The attacks attributed to the Israelis haven’t led to reports of any sunken ships, but the detonations have forced at least two ships to return to port in Iran, thus delaying the delivery to Syria of the fuel on board, Iranian shipping professionals say.

U.S. officials provided tacit U.S. support during the Trump administration for such attacks, according to a person familiar with the matter. The two countries have had a longstanding intelligence-sharing relationship and the U.S. has backed prior Israeli strikes in Syria.

At the very least, there is no indication the U.S. would stand in Israel’s way, analysts said.

“As long as the [Biden] administration believes the Israelis are remaining below the threshold of major escalation or conflict, I don’t think they are going to get in the way of things Israel feels it needs to do to protect itself,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, met virtually Thursday with Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat to discuss a range of issues, with matters involving Iran a centerpiece of their discussions, officials said.

Write to Gordon Lubold at and Benoit Faucon at

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The Freedom of Natural Curls: Egypt’s Quiet Rebellion

CAIRO — There’s a TV commercial from the 1980s that some Egyptians remember well: Two women stand at a mirror, one with thick, dark curls, the other draped in sleek, glossy tresses.

“My hair is curly,” says the first, pouting slightly as she struggles with a comb. “I would love to style it nicely for this wedding.”

“Curly hair — not a problem,” the other woman reassures her. “Come, we still have time.”

One application of Glatt Schwarzkopf straightening cream later, the first woman is back at the mirror, the comb gliding easily through her smoothed-out hair. “My hair,” she coos, “is lovely.”

Hair Addict, an online forum and hair-care company with about 500,000 social media followers across Egypt and the Persian Gulf. “Then when I did, I got so mad at myself and society. Now when I look at natural hair, I see the amount of character it reflects and the amount of independence.”

@curlytalks on social media, had posted that “the same people who used to call my hair ‘mankoosh’ and ‘akrat’” — which roughly translate to “messy” and “coarse” in Egyptian Arabic — “are the same ones asking how I style it now coz they’re trying to do the same.”

cascade of golden curls. Natural hair underwent a resurgence among Black women in the United States around the same time, giving rise to curl-specific products and stylists. Social media brought that shift to Egypt and helped nurture movements toward all-natural beauty products, wellness and self-acceptance.

The soccer star Mohamed Salah and his Afro have become national icons in Egypt, and curly hairstyles now appear regularly on the red carpet at El Gouna Film Festival, an annual extravaganza on the Red Sea.

For many, the most important factor was practicality. Whether by heat or by chemicals, repeated straightening can weaken and harm hair, causing it to break and fall out.

After Ms. Gawish started posting about treatments made of natural ingredients in 2016, her Facebook following leapt from 5,000 users to 80,000 in just a few months, she said. As she and her followers began growing their curls out, they traded tips and sympathy.

What should they do about an upcoming wedding? A job interview? A boss who eyed their curls and told them, “This isn’t the right company for you”?

Ghada el-Hindawy, 44, opened G Curls after researching treatments for her daughter’s curly hair, not wanting her to suffer through straightening.

The cultural disapproval of curly hair “is very harmful to the hair and to the soul,” Ms. el-Hindawy said. “When you go curly, it makes your hair healthier. Now people want to go natural, face themselves, accept themselves.”

The clientele at G Curls, in a suburban development called Beverly Hills, tends to skew young, well-off and well-traveled, with an education from one of Cairo’s international schools.

But that, too, has started to change.

Ms. el-Hindawy said that in the last year the salon had begun to draw more middle-class and veiled clients. Many of Hair Addict’s followers come from Upper Egypt, far from the curly hair hot spots of Cairo and Alexandria.

Men, too, are showing up at G Curls and in curly Facebook groups, despite rigid gender norms that frown on male grooming.

In Abdelwahab Badawy’s village in rural Menoufia, in the Nile Delta, the local curly population has grown in the last seven years from one man (him) to 10. As far as he can tell, that is, since the women are veiled.

When he was growing up, his father prescribed a standard-issue close-cropped style that Mr. Badawy, 24, an engineering student, thought made his ears stick out. When he started growing out his mass of coils at 17, the experiment was such a success — girls noticed him, guys asked for tips — that he was undeterred when a professor mocked him, when others quoted a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that called for hair to be evenly cut, or when a stranger in the street yelled, “Should I get you a lice comb?”

“No,” he retorted. “Keep it for your mom.” (He said they quickly came to blows.)

Ahmed Sayed, 26, a photographer and engineering student in Cairo, used to comb or blow-dry his hair straight, gelling it for hold. Every time he washed before praying, he would have to redo the entire process, visit a hairdresser or simply leave it disheveled.

Going natural a few years ago saved him money and hair damage. It did not hurt that his hairstyle resembled that of Egypt’s most worshiped soccer player, or perhaps — as Mr. Sayed learned after some research — his ancient Egyptian ancestors, some of whom styled their hair into elaborate curls and plaits.

“In Egypt, we have this complex about foreigners where people want to look more Western,” he said. “It’s important to me to have my look reflect my heritage and where I come from.”

Modern Egypt is still a different story. After graduation, Mr. Sayed will begin his 18-month mandatory military service, where, he knows, he will be forced to shave his head.

Nada Rashwan and Farah Saafan contributed reporting.

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As Oil Prices Rise, Executives Aim to Keep Them High

HOUSTON — Even as oil and gasoline prices rise, industry executives are resisting their usual impulse to pump more oil out of the ground, which could keep energy prices moving up as the economy recovers.

The oil industry is predictably cyclical: When oil prices climb, producers race to drill — until the world is swimming in petroleum and prices fall. Then, energy companies that overextended themselves tumble into bankruptcy.

That wash-rinse-repeat cycle has played out repeatedly over the last century, three times in the last 14 years alone. But, at least for the moment, oil and gas companies are not following those old stage directions.

An accelerating rollout of vaccines in the United States is expected to turbocharge the American economy this spring and summer, encouraging people to travel, shop and commute. In addition, President Biden’s coronavirus relief package will put more money in the pockets of consumers, especially those who are still out of work.

to less than zero.

That bizarre day seems to have become seared into the memories of oil executives. The industry was forced to idle hundreds of rigs and throttle many wells shut, some for good. Roughly 120,000 American oil and gas workers lost their jobs over the last year or so, and companies are expected to lay off 10,000 workers this year, according to Rystad Energy, a consulting firm.

Yet, even as they are making more money thanks to the higher prices, industry executives pledged at a recent energy conference that they would not expand production significantly. They also promised to pay down debt and hand out more of their profits to shareholders in the form of dividends.

“I think the worst thing that could happen right now is U.S. producers start growing rapidly again,” Ryan Lance, chairman and chief executive of ConocoPhillips, said at the IHS CERAweek conference, an annual gathering that was virtual this year.

several million barrels of oil off the market. OPEC’s 13 members and nine partners are pumping roughly 780,000 barrels of oil a day less than at the beginning of the year even though prices have risen by 30 percent in recent months.

rising concerns about climate change reduce the demand for fossil fuels in favor of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Russia has been pressing Saudi Arabia to loosen production caps, while Kazakhstan, Iraq and several other countries are exporting more. Even Iran and Venezuela, which have struggled to sell oil because of U.S. sanctions, are beginning to export more.

attacked American military forces.

Some tensions in the region could ease if the Biden administration and Iranian officials restart negotiations on a new nuclear agreement to replace the one that was negotiated by the Obama administration and abandoned by the Trump administration. Iran would then most likely export more oil.

Of course, U.S. oil executives have little control over those geopolitical matters and say they are doing what they can to avoid another abrupt reversal.

“We’re not betting on higher prices to bail us out,” Michael Wirth, Chevron’s chief executive, told investors on Tuesday.

Chevron said this week that it would spend $14 billion to $16 billion a year on capital projects and exploration through 2025. That is several billion dollars less than the company spent in the years before the pandemic, as the company focuses on producing the lowest-cost barrels.

“So far, these guys are refusing to take the bait,” said Raoul LeBlanc, a vice president at IHS Markit, a research and consulting firm. But he added that the investment decisions of American executives could change if oil prices climb much higher. “It’s far, far too early to say that this discipline will last.”

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