Sezin Öney
Dec 02 2017

Songbird to stool pigeon; Zarrab’s journey to Iran sanctions trial

Before becoming the U.S. courtroom star witness in the ongoing Iran sanctions-busting trial drama, Reza Zarrab had an unlikely occupation in Turkey: He was a lyricist of lachrymose Arabesque Turkish pop songs.

The lyrics to a song he penned for one of the foremost music stars of Turkey, İbrahim Tatlıses, go:

Everything turned upside down

I am a plaintiff against fate

I had a bullet in my heart

And comes the end of the film

We did not understand what it was about

Never mind this and that

But Zarrab is a person who did mind the "this and that" and one feature of his personality was his scrupulous bookkeeping. He revealed this trait to a tabloid journalist back in 2010:

"I am a person who documents and archives every step of his life," he said.

Did Zarrab keep his "archive" in the bunker he dug deep beneath his seaside Bosporus villa? Or did he take them abroad before he travelled to the United States where he was arrested in March 2016?

While there may be records of the 34-year-old millionaire’s later life, much of it spent in the public eye, mystery clouds his early past in Iran, Turkey and Dubai.

Born in Iran in 1983 to parents from Iran’s sizeable Azeri minority – who speak a language very close to Turkish – Zarrab was brought to Turkey as an 18-month-old toddler and lived and went to school in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul until he was 13.

Zarrab was privately educated in Istanbul, but his teachers barely recall him, saying he did not stand out in any way. After the school closed down due to the owner's gambling debts, it is not clear where or even if Zarrab continued with his education.

In this Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 photo, Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who is charged in the U.S. for evading sanctions on Iran, watches a concert in Istanbul. (Depo Photos via AP)
In this Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 photo, Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who is charged in the U.S. for evading sanctions on Iran, watches a concert in Istanbul. (Depo Photos via AP)

The family relocated to Dubai in 1996 where they established the currency exchange companies Nafees Exchange and Al Salam Center Exchange. But three years later, Zarrab returned alone to Istanbul where the teenager’s amorous activities stood out more than his business ventures.

Zarrab started a tempestuous relationship with Azeri pop singer Günel Zeynelova. He wrote steamy lyrics for her and she introduced him to the cream of Turkish pop stars and crooners.

In the celebrity social circles, Zarrab blended in well as an exotic dewy-eyed lyricist from Iran, though his family is reported to have cut ties with him due to their disapproval of Zeynelova. The relationship ended in acrimony in 2007 and a court case after she was alleged to have sent him death threats.

It was around this time that Zarrab’s family became involved in business circles around Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Enter Babak Zanjani, a former driver to the head of Iran’s central bank and a petty fur trader in Turkey. Zanjani established companies in Turkey and Zarrab seems to have become a key asset with his fluent Turkish and socialite connections.

The pair worked together to make their fortunes, though it is clear that Zarrab was the junior partner to future multi-billionaire Zanjani.

Somewhere between 2005, when Ahmedinejad became the president of Iran and 2007, when Zarrab became a Turkish citizen, Zarrab began to establish and acquire multi-million dollar firms. By 2012 his "Safire Gold Trade" company had a near monopoly in Turkey.

Along with his business fortunes, Zarrab’s love life was also on the up. A fan of Turkish singing star Ebru Gündeş, Zarrab sent her lyrics and lavish gifts and she responded with her affections.  

His relationship with Gündeş, 10 years his senior, was covered extensively in the tabloid press which highlighted his million-dollar gifts, rose petals delivered by the truck-load and a race horse aptly named "Duty-Free".

This file photo taken on December 17, 2013 shows detained Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab (C) surrounded by journalists as he arrives at a police center in Istanbul. / AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE
This file photo taken on December 17, 2013 shows detained Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab (C) surrounded by journalists as he arrives at a police center in Istanbul. / AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE

When Zarrab was arrested on arrival in Miami on a trip to Disney World with Gündeş and their five-year-old daughter Alara, it was not his first spell behind bars. He spent two months in jail in Turkey from late 2013, accused of breaking sanctions on Iran and bribing officials on an epic scale.

But then-prime minister, now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stood by Zarrab, and as the prosecutors and police involved in his arrest were rounded up and themselves jailed, the Iranian-born millionaire walked free.

Zarrab returned to the millionaire lifestyle and was embraced as a darling of the media. He was portrayed as a model husband and father, and successful businessman-turned philanthropist. To ensure his reputation, however, Zarrab filed legal complaints demanding eye-watering levels of compensation against anyone daring to question his honesty and integrity.

Seemingly secure in Turkey once again, why did Zarrab travel to the United States last year where he must have known he had a fair chance of being detained? Was he planning to "sing" all along?

Was he afraid he would be sent to Iran and share the fate of his business associate Zanjani? Following Zarrab’s 2013 arrest, Zanjani was arrested in Iran and later sentenced to death for withholding billions of dollars of the oil-for-gold scheme proceeds from Iranian authorities.

Zarrab’s testimony at his New York trial has already implicated Erdoğan and a number of Turkish ministers, as well as undermining faith in the Turkish banking system which could affect investment and the economy.

Erdoğan has condemned what he has called “fake courts” and painted the trial as an attempt to undermine Turkey both politically and economically. U.S.-Turkey relations, already shaky over a number of issues, look set to deteriorate further.