Questions on the Zarrab wedge in Turkey-US ties

Questions on the Zarrab wedge in Turkey-US ties

The postponement of the New York court case of the Iranian-Turkish businessman - accused of breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran through gas-for-gold trade and delivering bribes to Turkish politicians - has further agitated the rhetorical fight over the case. It has also caused the value of the Turkish Lira to further decline against the dollar, prompting the Turkish Central Bank to scramble to halt the fall.

Addressing the parliamentary group of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) on Nov. 21, President Tayyip Erdoğan said the Zarrab case was a “plot against Turkey.” He said those “could not topple” his government in 2013 corruption cases and in the 2016 military coup attempt were now trying to use the Zarrab case in the U.S.

On the other hand, addressing the parliamentary group of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) the same day, CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu noted that Erdoğan was placing unusual importance on the Zarrab case. He said the government was “panicking” about the case because it is an “accomplice.”

The New York court postponed the case from Nov. 27 to Dec. 4 on the grounds that the formation of the jury was not completed. Perhaps the postponement was made in order to find jury names with no links to Turkey, following strong reactions from Turkey that lobbyists of the network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt, has been trying to influence the case.

Long before the Zarrab case started, the judge of the case in New York, Richard Berman, visited Turkey with his wife in trips co-sponsored by the Gülen movement. Then, after he was arrested and released in the December 2013 case in Turkey, Zarrab was arrested by the U.S. police in Florida on March 21, 2016. He is now on trial together with Hakan Atilla, a ranking manager of Turkish public lender Halkbank, which is allegedly involved in the affair.

The Turkish government believes that the U.S. authorities are putting pressure on Zarrab to make a plea bargain in order to put Halkbank in more difficulty, which could also affect the Turkish banking system.

Before it advances any further, here are some not so frequently asked questions about the Zarrab case:

* Zarrab’s boss in Iran in the alleged chain for breaking the U.S. embargo and money-laundering scheme, Babak Zanjani, was sentenced to death in Iran in 2016 and is still in prison. Is it possible that - fearing a move from the Iranian intelligence agencies against him - Zarrab secretly contracted FBI officers in Turkey and submitted himself in the U.S., while under the guise of a family trip? Erdoğan and the Turkish government are worried that Zarrab will be pushed to make denunciations about figures from Turkey, but has he or could he reveal more names and links from Iran?

* Will the court look into Turkish claims that the evidence the indictment is based on is at least partly fabricated, and that those who collected it were put on trial in Turkey accused of being involved in a conspiracy against Erdoğan, his family and the government?

* If there is a plea bargain by Zarrab, would that mean that Hakan Atilla is now the only defendant in the case? In that case, would the names of two former Turkish ministers, Egemen Bağış and Zafer Çağlayan (against whom there are also arrest warrants in the U.S.), would be erased from the indictment?

* Breaking the U.S. embargo (not a U.N. one) is not a crime in Turkish law. But will the U.S. be able to sentence Hakan Atilla - a Turkish citizen, a government official who was on an official trip to the U.S. – based on accusations that he was involved in the trade on behalf of his bank, channeled through the U.S.? What would the consequences of that be? Could it reach as far as involving Erdoğan and his close circle, or even sanctioning Turkey as a country?

It seems that the court case could either grow bigger or evolve into something less spectacular than today, depending on the proceedings. It is unlikely that the case will remain as it is now.

Opinion, Murat Yetkin, Reza Zarrab