Ilhan Tanir
Nov 17 2017

Zarrab confessions could lead to stormy U.S.-Turkey relations

Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, charged with subverting sanctions on Iran, is cooperating with U.S. federal prosecutors, NBC television said, and his confessions could upset the already troubled relationship between the United States and Turkey.

Though the news is not yet officially confirmed, NBC cited two sources it said had knowledge of the matter on Thursday evening. It will be interesting to see how this news, once verified, will affect the relationship between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the United States. It is certain that Erdoğan will not accept the news calmly.

NBC also said U.S. prosecutors may be seeking information about any ties between the Turkish government and former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn from Zarrab.

Zarrab was arrested in March 2016, whereas Flynn did not become a lobbyist for Turkey until August 2016. It is not immediately clear then what relationship there could have been between these two. But, it should be remembered, as it is no secret, how the Turkish government worked so diligently, exploring multiple avenues to ensure Zarrab did not confess or become a cooperating witness for the prosecution.

Did the Turkish government, or its proxies, promise Zarrab it would free him in return for him not cooperating? Did they tell him that they were working with Trump’s team and fed him with some of interactions with the Trump administration officials to give him a hope? All this is speculation, but did Zarrab lose hope after waiting patiently for help from Turkey or Trump’s advisors? The realisation that Ankara was not able to free him and the prospect of a decades-long jail sentence must have weighed heavily on Zarrab. And Zarrab may have some information about the recent interactions between Ankara and Trump administration officials even if he has been in jail for the last 18 months.

For Zarrab to get a reduced sentence though he must name all the people and organisations involved and reveal all the details of how they violated the sanctions imposed on Iran due to its nuclear programme.

Zarrab is thought to have made billions of dollars between 2010 and 2015. He is now expected to reveal all his relationships with all the people in the world with whom he had any interaction.

Of course, we are very curious about what he will say about Turkey, who will be implicated in his confessions, and how far up those accusations will go. 

Any information Zarrab reveals will not be made public immediately. Prosecutors will draw up new charges against those new people implicated by Zarrab’s confessions, regardless of nationality, including people in Turkey. Those under indictment will only find out that there are charges against them, when they come to the United States, or fall into U.S. custody elsewhere.

Someone Zarrab may immediately implicate though, is his co-defendant Mehmet Hakan Atilla. The two men were to be tried together in New York from Nov. 27. Zarrab could testify against Atilla and verify the voices found on tapes dated from 2013, when corruption charges were first brought in Turkey against Zarrab and several ministers.

Erdoğan had these charges dismissed, the ministers released and the prosecutors arrested. Zarrab could verify his own voice on the tapes, confirm meetings, and reveal new crimes when testifying against Atilla. If this happens, Atilla could be given a lengthier prison sentence or even life. Atilla may have no other choice but to follow in Zarrab’s footsteps and cooperate with the prosecution.

Anyone even remotely involved in violating U.S. sanctions against Iran will be on tenterhooks, unsure of their situation.

U.S. federal prosecutors are probably not thinking, “let’s charge Turkey’s leaders and indict them”, but it should be noted the crimes Zarrab is charged with carry a 90-year sentence. In order to reduce his sentence to five to 10 years, Zarrab must provide valuable information, which in turn may implicate others.

No one will be surprised, if after this, Erdoğan’s anti-U.S. rhetoric becomes even more strident. Information Zarrab reveals may or may not implicate Erdoğan himself, but will most certainly implicate many of his closest advisors and ministers, past and present, and even family members. This will most certainly anger Erdoğan, leading to a “hot” situation between the two countries.

The news that Zarrab has been “flipped” has not been completely verified yet. But if he does, major storms are expected between the United States and Turkey. How much worse can the already troubled relationships between the two countries get?