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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

CNN Investigates Iran's Drone Transfers To Russia; WSJ: Shareholder Activists Drag Companies Into U.S. Culture Wars; Bipartisan Lawmakers Clean Wall Honoring Vietnam Veterans. Aired 5:30- 6a ET

Aired May 26, 2023 - 05:30   ET




SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): This behavior in the Caspian Sea.

This is one such vessel. It's a Russian-flagged tanker that was seen in early January leaving Iran's Amirabad port and making its way across the Caspian Sea to Russia's Astrakhan port. Now, we cannot independently verify what this tanker was carrying but experts tell us the shipment was likely linked to the arms trade.

ABDELAZIZ (voice-over): And there are signs that Tehran could be airmailing arms, too. The U.S. and Ukraine both accuse Tehran of sending supplies to Russia by plane.

CNN analyzed the tracking data of four Iranian cargo planes flagged by the U.S. Commerce Department for potentially carrying drone shipments. Collectively, the aircraft made at least 85 trips to Moscow airports between May 2022 and March 2023.

Iran has admitted that it sold a small number of drones to Russia but it says the sale was a few months prior to the war in Ukraine. CNN has reached out to Iran and Russia for comment but has yet to receive a response.

But given the much larger volume cargo ships can carry, the Caspian Sea corridor is likely the primary conduit. And experts say it is the new frontier for weapons trade between Moscow and Tehran, tucked away from Western interference.

It provides an easy avenue for sanctions evasion, expert Aniseh Tabrizi says.

ANISEH BASSIRI TABRIZI, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, MIDDLE EAST SECURITY STUDIES AT FUSI: I think the perception in Moscow is that Iran can teach a lot to Moscow about how to go and how to still have a significant economy even when sanctions are imposed.

ABDELAZIZ (voice-over): And there is very little the U.S. and its allies can do to stop it. And more could be on the way. Intelligence officials warned in November Iran plans to send ballistic missiles, ammunition, and more sophisticated drones to Moscow -- a bustling corridor potentially providing a much-needed arsenal critical to Russia's landgrab in Ukraine.


ABDELAZIZ: Now, I can't overemphasize just how important this relationship is between Moscow and Tehran. The cooperation between these two countries is deepening. Russia needs to resupply its arsenal. Of course, it's severely depleted due to the war in Ukraine. Iran sees an opportunity to rebalance the relationship on a more equal playing field.

And the area we're talking about here, the Caspian Sea -- you take a look at that map. There is no footprint for the U.S. There is no footprint for NATO in that area.

We did ask U.S. officials about our story. They did not acknowledge or confirm the Caspian Sea route.

But there is one thing I want to mention, which is that a U.S. Navy commander made a visit to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan just last month to discuss maritime security. You can absolutely expect the United States is scrambling to try and stem the flow of arms.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. All right, Salma. Thank you so much. Fantastic reporting. Nice to see you this morning.

All right, quick hits around the globe right now.

Police in Japan arresting the suspect in a shooting and stabbing that killed four people, including two officers. Such attacks are rare due to the country's extremely strict gun laws.

Killer whales severely damaging a sailboat off the coast of Spain Thursday. Officials say there have been dozens of Orca attacks on vessels off the coasts of Spain and Portugal this year.

The Italian Coast Guard rescuing two large migrant boats carrying more than 1,000 people in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy. They are now on their way to Italian ports.

All right. Coming up, major corporations dragged into culture wars. Does it ever pay for the boss to get political?

And the Celtics stave off elimination again. Can they make history?



ROMANS: All right. Companies are increasingly under fire from shareholders for their environmental and social stance. Corporate board members bombarded by a record number of shareholder proposals challenging their so-called ESG -- Environmental Social Governance policies. It puts them uncomfortably in the middle of America's culture wars.

One executive telling The Wall Street Journal, quote, "Companies are getting dragged into partisan fights that they don't want to be in, but they can't avoid it anymore."

Let's bring in Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners. Jess, a fascinating trend when you look at all of these proposals. What's causing this?

JESSICA KRIEGEL, CHIEF SCIENTIST OF WORKPLACE CULTURE, CULTURE PARTNERS (via Webex by Cisco): Well, it's an opportunity that these shareholder activists are seeing that they can force the hand of the board of directors and CEOs to make a statement on political issues that really have nothing to do with the business, and so they're taking that chance. They know that most of these proposals are not going to get passed and yet, it's still an opportunity to see what the CEO will say. And half of the CEOs are really eager to make a statement about these things and half of them do not want to be forced to at all and they're trying to just focus on the business.

ROMANS: So is this a reaction to this sort of idea -- this perception that companies are suddenly becoming woke?

KRIEGEL: Yes. I mean, this is an issue where if we want to change the world start at home, right? And for CEOs, the home is the workplace. Focus on workplace culture and not these political culture wars because many of those issues -- gun control, abortion -- they're not going to get solved at the business level.

And so, for a CEO, there are so many issues right in front of them that they can solve. The excess burnout. Issues with employee mental health. Issues with women and men leaving the workforce. Those are the issues that they need to be focused on and that the great CEOs are really paying attention to; not these distractions, which are perhaps getting headlines but not helping the business.

ROMANS: But it's interesting because if you look in some of these cases -- you mentioned abortion is one of them -- you can hear from CEOs who say a lot of their employees are demanding that the company take a stand or make a statement if they see abortion restriction, for example, or something that they feel like the employees want to hear what the company has to say.


You say don't wade into that territory.

KRIEGEL: Well, study after study shows that inclusion and belonging in the workplace, diversity, and equity drives profitability, so that should be the focus of the CEO. And every company is made up of people on the left and on the right, and so if take a stand on one side you're not going to be creating an inclusive environment for half of your employees.

And so what's important here is to focus on your purpose. What is the meaning of the work that you're creating for this community of employees that you are leading, and really serving, because servant leadership is the key here? And that has to do with creating an environment where they all feel like they belong. And so these political issues are not going to get you there.

ROMANS: All right, Jess Kriegel of Culture Partners. So nice to see you. Have a great long weekend.

KRIEGEL: Thank you -- you, too.

ROMANS: All right, to sports.

The Boston Celtics staying alive in the Eastern Conference Finals, sending the series back to Miami for a game six. I did not see this coming, Andy. Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report.


So, NBA teams that go down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series have never won. They are 0-150. Only three teams have ever forced a game seven, and only 15 times even have ever forced a game six, but the Celtics are now one of those teams. They came out on a mission from the start of game five with that home Boston crowd behind them.

The Celtics starting on a 23-7 run. They lead by 15 after the first and never looked back. Four Celtics starters scoring at least 20 points. The Heat, meanwhile, had no one score 20 as Boston wins game five 110-97.


JAYLEN BROWN, BOSTON CELTICS GUARD: Our back has been against the wall. Obviously, we didn't imagine being in this position being down 3-0. But when adversity hits you get to see what a team is really made of. And, I mean, it couldn't get no worse than being down 3-0. But we didn't -- we didn't look around. We didn't go in separate directions. We stayed together.

JIMMY BUTLER, MIAMI HEAT FORWARD: We've just got to come out and play harder from the jump. So like I always say, it's going to be all smiles. We're going to keep it very, very, very consistent knowing that we are going to win the next game.


SCHOLES: Yes, so game six tomorrow night back in Miami, and you can watch that one on TNT.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Stars also able to keep their season alive and avoid getting swept by Vegas. And check out the incredible hand-eye coordination by Jason Robertson batting the puck out of mid-air for the first of his two goals on the night. And then the hero of the night was Joe Pavelski. He became the oldest player to score an overtime winner in a playoff elimination game at 38 years, 318 days.

The Stars send those Dallas fans home happy, winning 3-2. They're trying to become the first team ever to come back from down 3-0 in the Conference Finals. Game five of that series in Vegas tomorrow.

All right, and finally, Michael Block's magical run hitting a bit of a snag yesterday after tying for 15th at the PGA Championship. The 46- year-old golf pro from California got a sponsor's exemption to play in the PGA event in Fort Worth this week. Block with a rough start though. He boogied four of his first five holes, but he did hit an incredible shot off this bridge on the 10th to save par. Pretty awesome shot here.

All in all, though, it was a rough day. Block in last place but he's still on top of the moon.


MICHAEL BLOCK, CLUB PRO WHO FINISHED 15TH AT PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: I wasn't surprised by it, to tell you the truth, because the experience I had last -- that last week was next level, right? And so, today, coming out here and not having my game at all and having a lot of -- having a lot of whatever you might call it -- just call it golf -- it is what it is. And at the same time, I sat there and I thought about it. And I said I'm going to see my boys tomorrow night (crying).


SCHOLES: Man -- and, Christine, as you can imagine, Block must be exhausted. He went right from New York to Fort Worth doing a million different interviews.


SCHOLES: But it's a win-win for him. Like he said, he either makes the cut or he gets to go home and see his family.

ROMANS: And savor the moment. Just savor all of it --


ROMANS: -- whatever happens.

All right, nice to see you, Andy Scholes. Thank you.

SCHOLES: All right.

ROMANS: Coming up on "CNN THIS MORNING" Congress leaving Washington for the holiday weekend without a debt ceiling deal.

And next, right here, a silver lining for the summer season -- summer driving season. Lower gas prices than last year.



ROMANS: All right, your Romans' Numeral this morning, a trillion -- as in $1 trillion dollars. Chipmaker Nvidia's market value soaring close to that benchmark level. The artificial intelligence boom translating into record sales for the chipmaker. The company forecasts current quarter sales of about $11 billion, shattering expectations.

Looking at markets around the world right now, Asian markets finished mixed this morning. The Hang Seng down nearly two percent. European markets are also mixed at this hour. And on Wall Street, you can see stock index futures barely moving there.

Retail sales in the U.K. rose a little more than expected, so that's something we're watching there, although all of these markets there are down in Europe.

Stocks finished mixed amid the ongoing debt ceiling sell-off. The Nasdaq finished up nearly two percent because of Nvidia and the AI profit promise, but the Dow slipped a little bit here.

The U.S. economy grew faster in the first quarter than previously reported -- 1.3 percent. The Fed's preferred inflation gauge, the PCE Index, due out later this morning. And on inflation watch, gas prices held steady overnight at $3.57 a gallon. Today's national average a little more than a dollar below a year ago.

Let's bring in Denton Cinquegrana, chief oil analyst at OPIS. So nice to see you again.

All right, taking a look at the average gas prices --



ROMANS: -- around the country, this is a little bit of relief for the Memorial Day driving folks, right? It's a little bit less than last year. Is that going to hold?

CINQUEGRANA: Well, actually, it's a lot less than last year. You mentioned that the average price right now is about $3.57. Last year at this time the price was on its way to an all-time high of more than $5.00. So, I mean, you really don't have to be Nostradamus -- or I guess in this case, Gastradamus -- to predict that prices are going to be lower than last year.

So it's a -- it's pretty much a layup and you just went through the highlights of the Celtics-Heat game, so there's a -- there's another reference for you.

But I think we continue that trend of lower than last year. And again, like I said, it's not that hard to predict that.

ROMANS: So give us the why?


So one, you've got to go back to last year. The world thought -- the market being the world -- thought that we were going to lose all this production from Russia. Russia is one of the largest oil producers in the world -- oil, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, et cetera. We thought Russia was going to disappear from the -- from the world

market. Their oil is still getting to market in certain places despite the fact that the U.S., the EU, and U.K. have sanctions on them. But their oil is still making it (INAUDIBLE) so we didn't lose that large producer out there.

They have come back a little bit as far as their outright levels of production. But the greatest fears have never come to -- come to pass last year.

And there's always at this time of year this fear of not enough and every year we seem to make it through. That being said, gasoline inventories in the United States are kind of a lot lower than what they normally would be this time of year.

But the fact of the matter is we still have a lot of people working from home. I'm in my basement right now. And our cars that we drive today are a lot more efficient than they were five-10 years ago.

ROMANS: Fascinating.

CINQUEGRANA: So that adds up to lower demand.

ROMANS: Lower demand.

Denton Cinquegrana, chief oil analyst at OPIS, thank you. Nice to see you. Have a great weekend.

CINQUEGRANA: You, too. Thank you.

ROMANS: All right.

Next, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill working together ahead of Memorial Day.



ROMANS: Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle reminding Americans that honoring our nation's veterans is not a partisan issue.

CNN's Jake Tapper has more.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Etched into these enormous pieces of black granite, which emerged from the National Mall like a wound, are the names of 58,318 servicemen and servicewomen who lost their lives fighting in one of America's longest wars, the Vietnam War.

In a town so often divided, today, members of Congress from both parties were united and came together to wash this wall by hand ahead of Memorial Day. Republican Congressman Mike Waltz from Florida is a Green Beret who did combat tours in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa. He organized this bipartisan event several years ago with fellow lawmakers who have also served.

REP. MIKE WALTZ (R-FL): It's a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made for this country, and it's a reminder to us as members of Congress, both sides of the aisle, that at the end of the day, we're all American. We're all veterans who were willing to die together just a few years ago, then we can come together, roll up our sleeves, and move the country forward.

TAPPER (voice-over): Retired Lt. Gen. and Michigan Republican Congressman Jack Bergman is one of only three Vietnam veterans left serving in the House.

REP. JACK BERGMAN (R-MI): I normally come here alone. I never -- once I get here I'm never alone because I know who I'm visiting.

TAPPER (voice-over): A wall full of the names of friends and Americans who did not come home.

REP. MIKE THOMPSON (D-CA): I have friends whose names are on that wall. People -- kids that I grew up with and people that I served with. And from that perspective it was powerful.

REP. JIM BAIRD (R-IN): The opportunity for he and I to be here is just, I think, very important and it really -- it really pays tribute to what we're here for.

TAPPER (voice-over): Republican Congressman Jim Baird from Indiana, and Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson from California both served in Vietnam, but only just realized all they have in common.

THOMPSON: We were both at Fort Benning, Georgia. We're both married to nurses. And we were both wounded in Vietnam. And as Jim pointed out, we're here to work together for the American people and maybe that will help us get there.

TAPPER (voice-over): For Republican Congressman John James of Michigan, and Democratic Congressman Pat Ryan of New York, Congress is a college reunion.

TAPPER (on camera): So you guys were in the same class at West Point?

REP. JOHN JAMES (R-MI): Yes, F1 -- go, Firehouse.

REP. PAT RYAN (D-NY): We lived across the hall from each other.

JAMES: Our class, the class of 2004, was the first class to take our Oath of Affirmation after the twin towers fell. That means we are all committed to our service after we knew we'd be going to war. We've suffered the most casualties of any West Point class since the Vietnam War.

RYAN: I wear this bracelet that actually has our West Point classmates' names on it -- etched on it -- and the interconnection between our generation and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the Vietnam generation.

TAPPER (voice-over): And maybe, just maybe the comradery will thaw some of the partisanship division we see just down the road.

JAMES: The long, gray line is neither blue nor red; it's more red, white, and blue. And it links every generation -- those who understand that we need to continue to sacrifice to make this nation prosperous and free.

TAPPER (voice-over): Jake Tapper, CNN, Washington.


ROMANS: All right, our top of the morning, the top songs in America.


TOOSII, RAPPER: Singing "Favorite Song."



ROMANS: Toosii's "Favorite Song" is the most Shazamed track in the U.S. right now.

Here's number two.




ROMANS: That's "All My Life" -- Lil Durk featuring J. Cole.

And number three.




ROMANS: "Calm Down" by Rema with Selena Gomez.

All right, thanks for joining me. I'm Christine Romans. Have a great weekend, everybody. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.