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News brief: OPEC meeting, Trump document dispute, U.S. balancing act in Iran

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

You know, a lot of people may talk of a future of electric cars and solar panels, but the reality is that much of the world still runs on oil. And today's meeting of oil producers could affect everything from gas prices to the world economy to the war in Ukraine.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OPEC+ is a cartel of many oil-producing nations. Giant producers like Saudi Arabia meet today, considering a big cut in oil production. The rules of supply and demand suggest that less production leads to higher prices, which would cause pain almost everywhere in the world except the Kremlin. OPEC member Russia is a big oil producer and wants higher prices to finance its invasion of Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is here. Jackie, what kind of change are they planning? And how would it affect the markets?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, as you said, the alliance is meeting today in Vienna, and they're considering cutting 1 million barrels per day, and that's about a 10% cut in what the alliance produces. But, A, there's speculation it could go up to 2 million barrels. And, you know, this move is seen as a bid by Saudi Arabia to prop up prices during the spring. And as the Ukraine war started, they were getting about $120 a barrel, but then came the slowing global economy, and the prices fell last month to about, well, less than $90. I spoke with Yasser Elguindi, and he's an analyst with Energy Aspects. And he says Saudi Arabia is trying to correct that price, but he says the magnitude of the proposed cut has really caught people by surprise. Let's have a listen.

YASSER ELGUINDI: OPEC is trying to shock and awe with a big production cut number that is going to get people's attention, and they're trying to support prices to keep them from falling further. That's the takeaway of all this.

NORTHAM: And Elguindi says it seems the Saudis are trying to push prices back to about $100 a barrel or more. But we don't know what OPEC+ is going to do. They're probably haggling right now. And the U.S. could be urging them not to make this move.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, because if supply is cut, then prices go up. How much, though? Because here in LA, where I'm at - 6.50 a gallon. That's already shaping some of my holiday decisions. What's this going to mean?

NORTHAM: Well, we'll have to wait and see exactly what OPEC+ decides what they're going to do. But if it is $1 million, you know, it's going to start rising again. We could see what it was earlier this summer. You know, the other issue, though, is how this will affect energy prices worldwide. European countries particularly are already having a big problem with soaring prices for homes and businesses, and this will just add on to that.

MARTINEZ: Then what would price increases say about U.S.-Saudi relations?

NORTHAM: Oh, this would be a rebuke to Biden. You know, he's been heavily criticized for meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who he blamed for involvement in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And, you know, all that meeting last summer got was a small increase in production. Now, Saudi Arabia is annoyed because there's been a flood of oil from emergency stockpiles and most of that from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. So this potential cut could be Saudi Arabia's way of saying, look; it's had enough of the release of reserve stockpiles, which are keeping prices lower.

MARTINEZ: And one other thing - Russia co-chairs OPEC+. How would this decision affect them?

NORTHAM: Well, Russia's economy is based on energy revenues, which is now critical to its war effort in Ukraine. And certainly, a deep cut in production means more money for Russia.

MARTINEZ: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: Former President Donald Trump is asking the Supreme Court to intervene in the review of documents the FBI seized from Mar-a-Lago.

INSKEEP: Yeah, Trump's attorneys filed this appeal late Tuesday. It's a little complicated here, but in short, the ex-president wants the court to review one part of lower court rulings over the papers recovered from his home. Trump appointed the district judge in this case, also appointed two of the three judges that partly overruled her and also appointed three justices on the high court that he would like to overrule them.

MARTINEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here. Ryan, it sounds like a very narrow appeal. So what exactly are Trump's attorneys asking for?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Yeah, it is a pretty limited ask. They want the Supreme Court to vacate the 11th Circuit's stay limiting the scope of the special master's review. So in other words, they want the special master's review to include the roughly 100 classified documents that the FBI collected in August from Mar-a-Lago. They are not asking the Supreme Court to stop the Justice Department from using those classified documents in their investigation, but it was critical, Trump's attorney said, that these classified documents be reviewed by the special master for purposes of transparency and public confidence, they said.

MARTINEZ: This has been an ongoing legal saga, Ryan. How did we get here?

LUCAS: There has been a lot of back-and-forth since the FBI took these documents from Mar-a-Lago back in early August. You may recall that in early September, a judge in Florida, who, as Trump noted, was - who, as Steve noted, was appointed by Trump, granted a request by Trump to appoint a special master to review all of these documents seized from Mar-a-Lago. The Justice Department appealed part of that ruling. It wanted two things in that appeal. It wanted the FBI to be allowed to use these hundred classified documents or so in their investigation, and the Justice Department didn't want to have to hand over the classified documents to the special master.

A three-judge panel on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with the Justice Department. It temporarily blocked the lower court's order and cleared the way for the FBI to use the classified documents in its investigation again. And it also said the Justice Department did not have to provide those classified materials to the special master.

MARTINEZ: So what does Trump's appeal now mean for the Justice Department's investigation?

LUCAS: It's not entirely clear. As I said earlier, Trump's attorneys aren't asking the Supreme Court to stop federal investigators from using these classified materials in their investigation. And remember; that investigation is looking into possible mishandling of national defense information or the concealing or destruction of government records. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is still appealing the appointment of the special master. Last week, the department said in court papers that the special master's review is delaying their investigation and had asked the 11th Circuit to fast-track that appeal. And that, of course, is something that Trump is opposing.

MARTINEZ: We've mentioned the makeup of the court, dominated by six conservative justices, three of them nominated by Trump. And Ginni Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, is under scrutiny for her ties to Trump's efforts to overturn the election. What role do all these dynamics play in this case?

LUCAS: Well, look; Trump has in the past gone to the Supreme Court to try to shield his business and his presidential records from investigators. I mean, he hasn't always fared well. In January, remember; the court rejected his request to block the release of White House records that the House January 6 committee was seeking for its investigation. So we'll see what happens with this new effort. In this case, Trump's attorneys have submitted this emergency application to Justice Clarence Thomas, who oversees the 11th Circuit. He has given the Justice Department until Tuesday to respond. Thomas can act on his own. Or the usual thing to do in something like this, a high-profile matter like this, would be to refer it to the full court.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: President Biden says he stands with the women of Iran and anti-government protesters.

INSKEEP: Although activists argue the United States could do more to help, after the death of a young woman at the hands of morality police. The activists would like Washington to put off nuclear talks with Iran.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about U.S. policy options. Michele, we've seen these images of young Iranian protesters and a really brutal crackdown to that. What is the U.S. doing in response?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah, so the State Department says it's appalled by the crackdown on these protesters and on these women. It's imposed targeted sanctions, including on those so-called morality police, and President Biden is promising more such steps. I'm hearing that there could be some more targeted sanctions announced today. The other thing that the U.S. is doing is allowing U.S. tech companies to provide messaging and other internet services to Iranians. One Iranian American human rights lawyer, Gissou Nia, calls it a welcome move.

GISSOU NIA: But it's a very belated move. And I definitely would urge Big Tech and the U.S. government, where it can influence these matters, to ensure that Iranians can actually access the services now.

KELEMEN: You know, because a lot of Iranians don't have any way of buying these services. U.S. sanctions have made that hard. So she wants to see the U.S. work with Big Tech companies to provide these services quickly - because, as she says, it is something long in the works - and to offer these services for free.

MARTINEZ: Now, one way the U.S. could support the protesters is by shifting its policies toward Iran. How could they do that?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, some of the things that activists want are things like working at the U.N. to set up a legal process to document human rights abusers and gather information for human - for, you know, potential future trials. That's something that could be easily done. The other thing that I was talking to people about - and this is Hadi Ghaemi, who runs the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran - is that he thinks the U.S. has been far too timid and too focused on the nuclear deal. Take a listen.

HADI GHAEMI: The entire administration's Iran policy has been just about the nuclear negotiations. And I think now they're caught a little bit flat-footed on how to react.

KELEMEN: You know, the Biden administration has been trying for a long time now to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. It would curb Iran's program in exchange for sanctions relief. And Ghaemi says he's hearing from a lot of his sources who are nervous that if Iran gets more cash now out of this deal, it will only use that to crack down on protesters. So the U.S. really has to strike a balancing act here. And, you know, the talks haven't gone anywhere recently anyway, so maybe put that on pause is what I'm hearing activists want.

MARTINEZ: And there's another bit of news that the State Department is tracking. Iran lifted a travel ban on an American man that the U.S. says was wrongfully held in Iran. Is this a sign maybe of some kind of U.S. deal with Iran?

KELEMEN: The U.S. says that this is not part of any kind of deal, that there was no prisoner swap or release of frozen assets, as the Iranians initially claimed. It seems to have been mostly a humanitarian gesture by Iran, which has faced a lot of criticism, not just over its treatment of women but over this specific case. We're talking about Baquer Namazi. He's 85 years old. He's a former UNICEF official. So the U.N. secretary general got involved and was a key player.

And just to give you some background, he was arrested in 2016 after going to Iran to help his son, who was already in jail. His son, Siamak Namazi, was granted a weeklong furlough from prison to see his father before the father left to seek medical treatment outside of Iran. It's not clear if Siamak is going to be sent back to jail after the furlough ends. And there are still other Americans who the U.S. says are unjustly held in Iran.

MARTINEZ: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

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

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.