Oil, Gold, and Bribes: A Ticking Turkish Time Bomb

Reza Zarrab (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Image: Emre Uslu/Twitter)
Reza Zarrab (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Image: Emre Uslu/Twitter)

Reza Zarrab (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Image: Emre Uslu/Twitter)

BY RAFFI BEDROSYAN

In a small courtroom in Manhattan, New York, there is a legal drama playing out, which may have serious consequences for the US, Turkey and Iran, but more critically for the Turkish President Erdogan. This court case is a ticking time bomb which may explode in President Erdogan’s face, despite all his clandestine efforts to diffuse it.

Reza Zarrab, a 33 year old Turkish citizen of Iranian descent, was arrested in Miami on March 17, 2016, as soon as he got off the plane. He stated that he had come to the US with his wife and daughter to see Disney World. But the three charges against him were serious – conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, money laundering and bank fraud. He was promptly transferred to a New York jail, where he resides at present.

And the connection to President Erdogan? Read on, as this is an international thriller in the making.

For several years, US had slapped sanctions on Iran to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The US had imposed strict controls on all international banks and corporations, banning them from doing any business with Iran. Therefore, Iran faced great difficulty getting paid for its oil exports. A couple of Iranian businessmen, Babek Zenjani in Tehran and Reza Zarrab in Istanbul, stepped up to circumvent the sanctions. Oil payments would be made to companies and banks in Turkey, huge amounts of gold would be bought with those funds, and then the gold would be exported from Turkey to Iran, directly or perhaps with a few stops in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and other places in between. This scheme, although very simple, required huge amounts of money and gold transferred on a daily basis, which would undoubtedly attract the unwanted attention of government officials. That problem would be addressed by generous bribes, commissions and police protection. When you are moving billions of dollars daily, a few hundred million dollars to government officials is just cost of doing business.

So, with the system set up in Iran and Turkey, Zarrab quickly became a ‘gold trading’ tycoon in Turkey, making headlines with large donations to religious charities linked to Erdogan as a philanthropist, marrying a popular pop star singer, and buying several mansions along the Bosphorus. Erdogan’s government also bestowed Turkish citizenship on him with a special decree. There were a few mishaps in the scheme, such as 1.5 metric tons of gold seized in the cargo of an airplane in Istanbul by a ‘misguided’ or ‘uninformed’ customs official, who was promptly suspended and sent to ‘exile’ to the interior part of Turkey.

But the scheme blew up and came out in the open on December 17, 2013, when Turkish police, or rather, a certain section of Turkish police not loyal to Erdogan, arrested Zarrab and the sons of three cabinet ministers, along with a few bank leaders. They had indisputable evidence, wiretaps, videos, telephone conversations and documents proving the large amounts of bribes passed on from Zarrab to the ministers and bank officials. Money counting machines in living rooms, several million dollars in shoe boxes, expensive gifts and money being delivered to the ministers’ homes in suit bags, all the dirty laundry came out. One of the most interesting telephone conversations released by the investigators and reported by several media outlets was between Erdogan and his son, when Erdogan instructs his son to get rid of all cash in the house, after he hears about the raids to his ministers’ houses. His son’s response after several hours of frantic work reveals that despite all his attempts to distribute the cash at home to colleagues, relatives or associates, there is still some 30 million euros left at home. Despite the evidence, Erdogan did manage to escape the investigation unscathed, fired the three ministers, but also fired all the police officials and prosecutors involved in this operation, claiming that this was a conspiracy and coup attempt by the followers of Fethullah Gulen, the Moslem fundamentalist preacher living in exile in Pennsylvania, US. Most of the police officials and prosecutors are now in jail, and a few lucky ones have fled the country.

Zarrab was released from prison in two months, in February 2014. His defense was very simple: “If you don’t release me immediately, I start talking.”

It is not known why Zarrab chose to come to the US. Perhaps he decided to seek protection there, albeit in jail, instead of facing attempts to silence him in Turkey. Meanwhile, his partner in Iran, Babek Zenjani, is arrested and sentenced to die for defrauding the Iranian Oil Ministry for 4 billion dollars.

The Zarrab affair gets even more interesting in the US. The man who brought the charges against Zarrab was Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, a star attorney who made his name as a fearless prosecutor of Wall Street wrongdoers. Erdogan’s concern about the Zarrab case was evident when he asked former Vice President Joe Biden to intervene. But luckily for him, just as the case against Zarrab started moving, the new president Trump fired Bharara, along with hundreds of other Obama appointees. Zarrab has hired nearly 20 elite white-collar criminal lawyers to defend him. The last two hired lawyers are especially noteworthy, Rudi Giuliani, former New York Mayor and U.S. Attorney, and Michael B. Mukasey, the former U.S. Attorney General, who have promptly met top Turkish government officials. The presiding U.S. District Judge Richard Berman has asked defense lawyers to explain Giuliani and Mukasey’s role in the case, and also to disclose if the government of Turkey is paying their fees. Prosecutors claimed that the hiring of Giuliani and Mukasey might present a conflict of interest because their firms also represent some of the banks alleged to be victims in Zarrab’s case. Prosecutors also said that Giuliani and Mukasey were hired to try to reach a political settlement in the case. In another twist, Mukasey’s son, Marc, has been widely speculated as a candidate to become the New York US Attorney under Trump, to replace Preet Bharara. The Zarrab case will be one of the agenda items when Erdogan meets Trump in the next few weeks.

This thriller involving power, bribery, corruption, oil and gold is will come to an end soon, but it is highly doubtful if justice will be served…

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