STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If you are the captain of an Iranian oil tanker, the United States has an offer for you. The U.S. State Department has been sending text messages or emails to Iranian tanker captains at sea around the world. And in at least one case, the U.S. offered money if the ship would come to a port where the United States could impound the ship.
The Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, Demetri Sevastopulo, has been covering this story. He's the first to report it. Good morning.
DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Who made this offer exactly, and what did it say?
SEVASTOPULO: Well - so the offer came from the State Department. But what's really amazing is it came directly from Brian Hook, who is the head of the Iran Action Group, which is the main State Department unit which is tackling the Iran issue. And he directly, over the last few months, has been texting, emailing ship captains around the world personally. In this case, he emailed the captain of the Adrian Darya, which is an Iranian ship off the coast of Syria that the U.S. suspects is transporting oil to Syria in breach of EU and U.S. sanctions.
INSKEEP: Oh, this ship has been in the center of controversy and in the center of the news for quite some time.
SEVASTOPULO: It has. It was seized at one point by British commandos off Gibraltar. It was held in Gibraltar for several weeks. A court then finally said that it had to be released after the Iranians guaranteed that it wouldn't breach EU sanctions. The Americans tried to get Gibraltar to hand it over. And Gibraltar said no.
So this is the latest attempt by the Americans to try and get control of the ship. And so they directly offered the captain, Mr. Kumar, several million dollars to bring the ship to a country that had apparently agreed to impound it and hand it over to the U.S.
INSKEEP: Now, if you've got this email - and you say you obtained the email - the first question, I guess, would be - is this really from Brian Hook, really from a senior State Department official? But you have a quote from Brian Hook in your story.
SEVASTOPULO: It is definitely from Brian Hook, and I have confirmed that with Brian Hook himself. You know, he said that this is the - an attempt by the Americans to ramp up the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. The next stage is to increase the enforcement of the many sanctions that the U.S. has put on Iran already. And this is a kind of a new novel approach to try and get ship captains and their crew both to be scared about working for Iran in the future and, second, to offer them a carrot, which is to say that if you come and help us, you'll be rewarded for life. And some of the language used in the email is quite colorful.
INSKEEP: And there are a number of other ships that appear to have received similar offers.
SEVASTOPULO: So I was told that he has contacted, personally, roughly 12 captains over the last few months.
INSKEEP: Now, the foreign minister of Iran is describing this as blackmail. It does sound like bribery. Whether it's legal or not, I don't know. But how does the U.S. view this particular tactic?
SEVASTOPULO: Well, the U.S. has had a program for more than 30 years called Rewards for Justice that they've used to pay money to people who provide information that helps disrupt terror networks. They used it with the son of Osama bin Laden, for example - or tried to use it. So they announced a program yesterday where they will pay up to $15 million to people for information that would help disrupt Iranian illicit networks. And this is - the offer to Kumar, the captain of the Adrian Darya ship, is actually the first time they've used this program in the case of Iran and the maximum pressure campaign.
INSKEEP: So this is open - it appears to be on the surface, at least - within U.S. law. There's a law to cover it. If anybody were to accept the offer of this money, would we ever know about it?
SEVASTOPULO: Well, I think we probably would because the State Department has been actually very kind of forward in terms of publishing - publicizing a lot of things they're doing because they want ship captains around the world to know that this is available to entice them to take up these offers. So if they don't publicize it, there's no kind of marketing campaign as such.
INSKEEP: Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times, thanks for your reporting.
SEVASTOPULO: Thank you.
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