News Brief: Tankers Attacked, Hong Kong Protests, Power Grid Outage

Jun 17, 2019
Originally published on June 17, 2019 10:02 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Is the United States moving toward a war with Iran?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That option remains on the table according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Here's what he said to CBS News yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS NEWS BROADCAST)

MIKE POMPEO: The United States is considering a full range of options. We briefed the president a couple of times. We'll continue to keep him updated. We are confident that we can take a set of actions that can restore deterrence, which is our mission set.

INSKEEP: The backdrop here is escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S., you will recall, withdrew from a nuclear agreement with Iran, which Iran has kept anyway up to now. But Iran has never had to stop all nuclear activity. And today an Iranian official says that, within 10 days, the country will exceed the amount of enriched uranium it is allowed to have on hand - that's as the U.S. continues to blame Iran for last week's attack on two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region.

KING: All right - a lot at stake here. And here to help us figure it out is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So there are, it's fair to say, mixed messages coming from President Trump and members of his administration. Right?

LIASSON: Yeah. I think that's fair. And that announcement that Iran made today about increasing the amount of uranium it's processing is something that it said it would do since the U.S. pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and imposed these crippling economic sanctions. But the U.S. policy of maximum pressure was supposed to push Iran to capitulate, come to the negotiating table for a different deal. But so far, it seems to be causing the opposite to happen. Iran is just getting more aggressive.

So now the big question is - what does the U.S. do next? - because, as you said, President Trump has been sending mixed messages. He says he doesn't want a war, he wants negotiations but, also, that all options - including military ones - are on the table. And his hawkish advisers, including the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have been advocates for a much more aggressive confrontation with Iran.

KING: I imagine what the Trump administration does next will, at least in some ways, be impacted by what our allies have to say about all of this. What are U.S. allies saying as tensions ratchet up?

LIASSON: Some allies are on board with the U.S., like the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia - Iran's age-old enemy in the region. They accept the U.S. version of events. But Germany has asked for more evidence, so has Japan, who owned one of the ships that were attacked. They're still asking for more evidence that the Iranian government was actually behind that attack.

And interestingly, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who accepts that Iran is behind the attack, blames the U.S. for squandering its credibility with its allies and for being so - finding itself in this isolated position now without all of the allies behind it.

KING: But does that suggest that the U.S. - the president has lost credibility on the world stage? Or is this type of pushback normal given the stakes here?

LIASSON: I think a certain amount of it is normal. But I also think that there is a lot of suspicion of President Trump because he has made so many statements that were inaccurate or misleading. I think that's part of the reason. There's also a lot of pushback because there's a suspicion among our allies that his top advisers do want a military confrontation with Iran.

KING: And just briefly, what about on Capitol Hill? What are lawmakers saying about all of this?

LIASSON: I have been hearing some bipartisan frustration from lawmakers that the administration hasn't briefed them enough about the attack soon enough with enough details. You're also hearing some calls, like from Republican Senator Tom Cotton, for a military response. So I think Congress is all over the place.

KING: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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KING: All right. In Hong Kong now, a second week of demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting unintelligibly).

INSKEEP: Look on social media, you'll see amazing time-lapse photography of a particular street with people flowing down for hours. People demonstrated even though the government has slowed down an extradition bill with mainland China. According to protest organizers, some 2 million people took to the streets on Sunday.

The bill at issue here is one that, according to critics, would allow Beijing to subject almost anybody accused of a crime in Hong Kong to mainland China's less transparent legal system. So why isn't suspending that enough?

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been on the ground in Hong Kong. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: All right. So these massive protests yesterday - what's happening today?

KUHN: Well, they were massive, I can tell you that. I was...

KING: (Laughter).

KUHN: ...Trapped in this sea of humanity...

KING: Wow.

KUHN: ...As it politely chanted and inched its way through Hong Kong's steel and glass canyons. And it went on all Sunday afternoon and, for many people, all night. A lot folks went home to get some sleep, and then this afternoon they started coming back. And we saw a few hundred protesters regrouping outside government offices and demanding a dialogue with the top leader, Carrie Lam. I don't think they got it.

But basically, I think, at this point, protesters and the government are looking for their next move.

KING: You were out over the weekend. You were talking to protesters. What did they tell you?

KUHN: Well, I think, as you mentioned, their demands are pretty clear. They want the bill scrapped, not paused. They want authorities to release the people who were detained for rioting. To give you an idea, I spoke to a ninth-grade protester named Kelly Ip (ph). She was there preparing for her Chinese history exam on Monday. She was there with half her class. And I asked her, you know, if she felt threatened by this bill. And here's what she said.

KELLY IP: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: She says, I'm still not sure whether this bill would affect me when I become an adult, but at least I fought against it. And we won't allow our freedom to slip out of our hands that easily. And...

KING: Incredible words for a ninth-grader. Wow...

KUHN: Yeah. That's right. And you know, these protesters are also aware of what the Chinese government is saying - that the Western media and Western governments are stirring them up. And they're angry to hear that. They say, sorry, we're not brainwashed by anyone; we're doing this ourselves.

KING: So if China is trying to crack down on Hong Kong's autonomy and the bill has now been delayed, what does it say that protesters have been able to pull this off? I mean, that seems like a real slap in the face to China.

KUHN: Well, it really is against the odds if you think that Beijing - that Hong Kong has jailed protest leaders, they've banned pro-independence political parties and disqualified opposition lawmakers. It's tough for people to speak out.

So how were they able to, you know, achieve so much with these protests? I think the most interesting explanation I've heard is that, while Hongkongers have never had direct democracy or direct elections for their leaders, they have had, for a long time, freedom of speech and the rule of law. And they know that when those things are threatened, you don't go quietly. You get on the streets, and you talk about it.

KING: And you said protesters are regrouping today, even though much smaller numbers. What's next? What do you predict?

KUHN: It's hard to know what the protesters can do. They want to press their advantage. They called a strike, but it's not really coming together. So it's hard to know what else they can do besides taking to the street.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Hong Kong. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: Sure thing.

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KING: All right. An investigation is underway in Argentina to find out what caused a massive power outage yesterday.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Wow. Tens of millions of people woke on Sunday to find themselves in the middle of one of Latin America's worst ever blackouts. Argentinians are already enduring tough times. Their economy is in trouble, and a presidential election comes in October. Now people want to know what happened to crash the national power grid.

KING: NPR's Philip Reeves is following this from Rio de Janeiro. Hi, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: So this sounds bad, if not disastrous. What do we know about what happened?

REEVES: Well, it started around 7 in the morning local time. And people woke up to find that the power was out not only in their homes but across almost all of the country - and also in parts of neighboring Uruguay and Paraguay, which get electricity from the Argentine grid.

The impact, frankly, could've been worse on a working day. But you know, big power cuts are always very serious. The trains stop running. Water supplies were disrupted, so were phones and the Internet. It happened on a day when there were some gubernatorial elections in some areas. These went ahead, but people had to use their cellphones to give themselves enough light to vote by. And it also happened on Father's Day, and a lot of Argentines were hoping to go out for Sunday lunch but had to cancel because restaurants were shut.

It took all day to get the lights back on. They are now back on, but people have a lot of questions.

KING: Yeah. Let's talk about the questions. Do we know - does anyone know anything yet about what caused this?

REEVES: Well, so far, we don't know a vast amount. I mean, officials described it as a failure in the grid's interconnection system that happened in the northeast between two electricity installations there and then triggered this unprecedented, huge chain reaction. They're trying to figure out exactly why that happened. They have said, though, that they don't think that this was a cyberattack or any other kind of sabotage.

KING: This, nevertheless, seems like the kind of thing that would freak people out. As you point out, it was on a weekend, so you don't have people trapped in elevators in office buildings or anything like that. But how are people reacting for the most part?

REEVES: Well, you know, they're clearly angry. They're already facing very hard times in Argentina. You know, inflation's among the highest in the world. They've got this boom and bust economy that's, right now, in such a mess that the government - very controversially - had to sign onto a - or decided to sign onto a 56 billion IMF bailout. There have been regular strikes and protests.

And right now, the political environment is particularly highly charged because presidential elections are coming up in October. President Mauricio Macri's fighting to keep his job in the face of a remarkable resurgence by the former president, Cristina Kirchner, who's running against him - this time on a ticket to be vice president, despite a stack of corruption charges against her.

KING: So will this outage affect Macri's chances? Or do you think everyone, by October, will pretty much have put this behind them?

REEVES: Well, you know, it doesn't do them any good. Argentines do care enormously about what the rest of the world thinks of them. You know, we saw that recently, actually, when Macri hosted a G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. You know, this will impact their view of how the world views them. But Macri is pretty - I'm pretty sure he's going to blame Cristina Kirchner for failing to invest sufficiently in the infrastructure during her years in government.

KING: And I imagine, just briefly, that an investigation into what happened and how to prevent it from happening again - especially on a weekday - will probably be conducted. Yeah?

REEVES: Yeah. They say they're going to conduct this investigation right away, obviously. And they estimate that it's going to last - it could be a couple of weeks before they get any results, which actually clear this matter up. During that time, it's going to be a matter of big discussion in Argentina, we can be sure of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN")

KING: NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio. Thanks, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.