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Court In Gibraltar Releases Iranian Oil Tanker Despite U.S. Bid To Keep It In Port


A court in Gibraltar has released an Iranian oil tanker despite a last-minute U.S. bid to keep it in port. The case is raising questions about the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran. Iran's foreign minister calls the strategy, quote, "economic terrorism." And he saw today's court ruling as a big win for his country. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is here.

Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How did we get here? This all started last month, right?

KELEMEN: That's right. It was early last month. The British Royal Navy seized this oil tanker, saying the vessel was bound for Syria in violations of European Union sanctions. Iran denied that, and it gave assurances to the court in Gibraltar - it had been held there - that this tanker will not proceed to Syria. Today the British Foreign Office said that Iran must abide by those promises. It also wants to see Iran release a British vessel that was seized in response last month. This...

KELLY: Right.

KELEMEN: ...Was a tit for tat thing...

KELLY: Yeah.

KELEMEN: ...Though British officials were insisting today that there should be no comparison, that what they were doing was enforcing EU sanctions and what the Iranians were doing was, quote, "unacceptable, illegal seizure of commercial shipping vessels in the Strait of Hormuz."

KELLY: So meanwhile, today's twist is this court in Gibraltar has released the Iranian tanker. The U.S. did not get its way today. What's the Trump administration saying?

KELEMEN: Surprisingly, very little. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who's usually very outspoken and talking tough about Iran, had the chance to speak about it. But he only barely mentioned Iran when he was at the State Department this afternoon speaking alongside Lebanon's prime minister.


MIKE POMPEO: This is a region that is threatened by Iran and is a nation threatened by its proxy Hezbollah. And we welcome the prime minister's courageous commitment to keep taking full responsibility for Lebanon's defense.

KELEMEN: And we should point out that Hezbollah is actually part of the Lebanese government. That gives you a sense of just how entrenched Iran is really in the region.

KELLY: Right - and how complicated all of the politics in play are. So I mean, what does this latest development tell us about the broader U.S. effort to isolate Iran - the whole maximum pressure campaign, as the Trump team calls it?

KELEMEN: Well, the Iranians are hoping that this is a sign that it's weakening. Iran's ambassador to London called the move by the court a "miserable defeat" for the U.S.


KELEMEN: That was his quote on Twitter today. Administration officials keep insisting that their pressure campaign is working. Pompeo wrote an op-ed just this month that it's weakening the Iranian regime, that it's depriving the Iranian regime of money it needs to do all of its destabilizing activities in the region. There's some evidence of that. But as you can see, the Iranians really remain defiant.

KELLY: And I mean, meanwhile, is there any sign of diplomacy, of talks of de-escalation going on here?

KELEMEN: I'm not seeing much of that. I mean, what the administration seems to be focused on is negotiating with partners in the region to counter Iran and to keep up the pressure. The Trump administration said that it pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in order to negotiate a better deal - to get this maximum pressure campaign to focus on a better deal that doesn't only deal with Iran's nuclear program but also all the other bad behavior in the region. But we're not really seeing any signs of any diplomatic negotiations or...

KELLY: That a better deal is coming to the table anytime soon.

KELEMEN: That's right.

KELLY: All right. That's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.