News brief: Iran denies helping Russia in Ukraine, U.K. politics, asbestos issues
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
A nationwide electricity shortage starts today in Ukraine. People are being asked to conserve electricity after Russian attacks using missiles and Iranian-made drones on power stations.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Now, Iran denies sending Russia kamikaze drones. The U.S. accuses Iran of lying, as the European Union prepares to sanction the country for supplying Russia. And Iran's military cooperation with Russia doesn't end there, with reported plans by Tehran to send surface-to-surface missiles, more drones, plus military trainers, to aid the Russians.
MARTINEZ: To find out what's behind this, we're turning to Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, Tehran and Moscow have cooperated militarily before, but why is Iran getting involved now?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, I'm seeing reports that Russia's own stockpile of ballistic and cruise missiles is shrinking, so that could be one reason. Iran is reportedly supplying Russia with medium-range missiles, as well as the Iranian Shahed drones that are now being seen attacking Ukrainian targets. It's got Western nations scrambling somewhat to help Ukraine counter these new weapons.
Beyond that, Iran has been paying more attention to its alliance with Russia, as well as China, as its ties with Western powers have frayed. The more hopeful days of the Iran nuclear agreement, they gave way to a return to hostilities during the Trump administration. There were some hopes about reviving the deal after President Biden took office, but even though both sides said they wanted to restore the deal, months of talks failed and now appear to be essentially frozen, in part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Tehran's support for Moscow.
MARTINEZ: But how does greater involvement in this promote Iran's national interests?
KENYON: Well, it certainly demonstrates to Russia, anyway, Iran has some value in this alliance. Now, whether that alliance can provide Iran with the support and benefits Tehran was hoping to see out of improved ties with the West, that remains to be seen. Analysts say it's probably unlikely. But it shows Iran can contribute to the alliance. And there's another benefit for Iran that may largely play out domestically at home in Iran. Tehran has always seen itself as a major world power, and moves like this provide Iranian leaders with something to point to when they want to talk about Iran's place as an important actor on the world stage, a country whose interests must always be taken into account.
MARTINEZ: If there are consequences for Iran, what would they likely be?
KENYON: Well, a good question. On the positive side, arms deals bring in revenue. Iran has suffered for years under Western sanctions, and they could certainly use the money. That was the main point of the nuclear agreement, as far as Iran was concerned, of course, to get out from under the sanctions - also, one of the main arguments critics used to attack it, that that money would be flowing to the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military and could be used in attacks against Israel or other U.S. allies.
Now, on the other hand, these latest events are expected to increase Western pressure on Iran. They dim hopes for diplomatic initiatives, such as the attempt to revive the nuclear agreement. On the contrary, we're seeing now European Union sanctions being imposed already against Russia over the Ukraine invasion. And now it looks like the EU is following up with sanctions on Iran. An EC spokeswoman says the EU has gathered sufficient evidence to justify sanctions, and members are looking toward a clear, swift and firm EU response.
MARTINEZ: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.
KENYON: Thank you.
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MARTINEZ: The British government is once again in chaos.
FADEL: Last week, Prime Minister Liz Truss was forced to fire her Treasury secretary. The two of them had championed an economic agenda that sent mortgage rates soaring and crashed the pound. And last night, another senior minister left and took shots at Truss on the way out. The prime minister is clinging to an office she's occupied for just over six weeks.
MARTINEZ: Let's go to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, things are moving fast on this. So where did it leave off?
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Thanks, A. Actually, last night, as Leila was saying, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, she resigned. It's not clear whether she quit or was pushed, but I'm not sure it really matters because she criticized Truss on the way out, in this letter, for implementing the very economic policies that the prime minister actually ran against. And then yesterday we had these things called Prime Minister's Questions here, and the Opposition Labour leader - his name is Keir Starmer - he said he thought, you know, Truss should just follow her Cabinet secretaries out the door. This is the way he put it.
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KEIR STARMER: A book is being written about the prime minister's time in office. Apparently, it's going to be out by Christmas. Is that the release date or the title?
LANGFITT: Truss, of course, she says she's not going anywhere. Here's how she put it.
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PRIME MINISTER LIZ TRUSS: Mr. Speaker, I am a fighter and not a quitter.
MARTINEZ: All right. So not a quitter, but she could be pushed out. So given how quickly things have unraveled for her, how much support does she have from members of her own Parliament?
LANGFITT: Not much at all, A. People here think that her resignation is only probably a matter of time. The Daily Star - it's a tabloid - it's running this livestream of a photo of Truss and a wilting head of lettuce to see which lasts longer. The party doesn't even seem to be operating effectively in some ways. Last night over in Parliament, it was chaotic about this vote about fracking that they had. There's a member of Parliament with the Tories named Charles Walker. He called it a shambles and a disgrace. And he said this. He said, the damage they've done to our party is extraordinary; I've had enough of talentless people.
MARTINEZ: Talentless people - what does Walker mean by talentless people?
LANGFITT: I think there's a sense here, A, among analysts and lawmakers in the party that Truss has surrounded herself with kind of second- and third-rate parliamentarians, in part to make sure there was nobody in her own Cabinet that could knock her off. And some people say this highlights a systemic problem in the way this country operates. You can appoint somebody as important as the chancellor of the exchequer - that's like our Treasury secretary - without any oversight, like you'd get in the United States with Senate confirmation. Patrick Dunleavy - he's an emeritus professor of political science over at London School of Economics that I chat with. And this is the point that he made.
PATRICK DUNLEAVY: The whole incident of Liz Truss coming into power, appointing a not-very-well-known person as chancellor, pushing through a whole series of unfunded tax cuts and a budget without any economic forecasts and then having to tear it all up within four weeks - that is a very good example of what happens when you don't have checks and balances.
MARTINEZ: Truss is Britain's fourth prime minister since the Brexit vote of 2016. I mean, how has a party that used to be known for stability become so unstable?
LANGFITT: So many reasons, but Brexit would be one, right-wing populist tilt of the Tories, but as Patrick Dunleavy was talking about - this unwillingness of leaders to level with the public about the inevitable trade-offs. You know, people refer to here as cakeism - Boris Johnson famously said he was pro having cake and pro eating it. And basically, what we're finding is when you're promising these things you can't deliver, you end up with a financial and political chaos we now see here in this country. And if the Tories can't right the ship, this is the best opportunity for the Labour Party in years.
MARTINEZ: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks.
LANGFITT: Good to talk, A.
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MARTINEZ: Asbestos - for decades, it was used in just about everything from building materials to fabrics to car parts. The thing is, though, asbestos is also a known carcinogen, and over time, many companies stopped using it because of the cancer risks.
FADEL: Now, the U.S. never actually banned the substance, though, and some industries continue to rely on it. Now there's a chance asbestos could finally be banned. All of this is detailed in a new report published today by ProPublica and NPR.
MARTINEZ: Joining us now for more is health reporter Sarah Boden at member station WESA in Pittsburgh, who worked on the project. Sarah, pretty surprising to hear that asbestos is still around and being used in the U.S. I mean, what's it being used for?
SARAH BODEN, BYLINE: Yeah, I was surprised by that, too. It turns out asbestos is still used by the chemical industry specifically for making chlorine, and that's because asbestos is a nearly indestructible mineral, and the chemical process to create chlorine is unstable. So you need to keep certain materials separate, and this is done by coating thick metal screens with a wet asbestos paste. You know, it kind of looks like oatmeal. And, you know, there are newer ways to produce chlorine without asbestos, but a number of older facilities in the U.S. haven't made these changes. The chlorine industry has claimed for decades that they can handle asbestos safely, but of course, it's extremely dangerous, and reporting from my colleagues over at ProPublica found stunning accounts of safety regulations not being followed.
MARTINEZ: Yeah, tell us more about that. I know you've spoken to some of the people from the NPR/ProPublica story that are concerned about their own exposure.
BODEN: Yep, yep. I went up to Niagara Falls, N.Y., earlier this month, and in that community, there's a company called OxyChem that ran a chlorine plant for decades. It was a major employer in the region, until last year when it shut down. And I spoke to some former OxyChem employees, and they told me how the wet asbestos that I mentioned, well, it would dry up and float around the facility and get on their clothes and into these hard-to-reach corners, like behind light fixtures or on top of furnaces. And eventually, workers would breathe it in. One of the people I spoke to on my trip is this guy named Mike Spacone.
MIKE SPACONE: When I see my friends that worked in the plant at a young age getting all these different cancers, I have to wonder, was it 'cause what they were exposed to?
BODEN: There were other hazardous chemicals that Spacone worked with at the plant, but, you know, we know when you breathe in asbestos, it doesn't get broken down, and over time, that can scar your lungs and even cause several types of cancer. Of course, we reached out to OxyChem for this story, and they said that the health and safety of its workers is its top priority. And also, they said that the accounts at Niagara Falls were inaccurate, but OxyChem wouldn't specifically say what parts were incorrect.
MARTINEZ: The workers, though, saw the asbestos. They knew it was dangerous. Why did they stay?
BODEN: Well, for some people, they felt like they didn't have another option. Another guy I talked to, Mark Justiana, says he felt pressured by his bosses not to make waves.
MARK JUSTIANA: I graduated high school, you know, and I made $100,000 a year. Where else am I going to go making that kind of money? So it was, you know, a give-and-take.
MARTINEZ: Wow. Now, in the story, your colleagues at ProPublica write that it looks like the U.S. might finally ban asbestos. How realistic is that?
BODEN: Well, you know, there is more momentum than what we've seen before, and that's because the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a full ban on asbestos, which is something that many public health experts say is long overdue. But the rule isn't finalized yet and is facing real pushback. You know, there have been attempts to do this before, but the chemical industry has fought those attempts, and it looks like it's doing that again.
MARTINEZ: That's WESA health reporter Sarah Boden, who's been speaking about the new NPR and ProPublica investigation on asbestos. You can find it right now on npr.org. Sarah, thanks.
BODEN: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.