U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has discussed with top Turkish officials how U.S. sanctions on Iran would impact Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, the department revealed in a letter responding to a query.
The letter responding to Senator Ron Wyden’s query spoke of seven meetings, spanning a two year period between April 2017 and Nov. 13 this year, where Secretary Mnuchin met with Turkey’s then-Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek, current Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The letter said U.S. President Donald Trump had told the Treasury and Justice departments to look into the impact.
Trump had told Erdoğan in a phone call in April that Secretary Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr would deal with the matter.
A federal court indicted Halkbank in October on charges related to a large-scale scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran. Up to that point, Turkey had continuously pressured the United States to drop the charges.
According to the indictment, Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab bribed high ranking officials, including Turkish cabinet members, to conduct fictitious trades to help divert Iranian oil revenue through Halkbank.
Zarrab had been arrested in 2016, and later became a witness against former Halkbank director Hakan Atilla, who recently returned to Turkey to become head of the Istanbul Stock Exchange after serving a prison sentence in the United States.
During his witness testimony, Zarrab explained how the sanctions evasion scheme was structured within Halkbank, exchanging Turkish gold for Iranian oil and gas as a workaround, which he said had been greenlit by President Erdoğan.
The indictment had been on hold until October, when Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Turkey subsequently launched a highly controversial military operation into northern Syria against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces.
Senator Wyden had asked in his letter whether Secretary Mnuchin or other officials had interfered with the investigation.
The Treasury responded that the department would not comment on ongoing prosecutions or investigations.
Wyden said in a statement that the response was unsatisfactory and that “Congress needs to know whether [Donald Trump and his cronies] ran the same Ukraine playbook by roping U.S. government officials into their personal scheme.”
The meetings had taken place while Treasury was supposed to be playing a key role in the Halkbank investigation, Wyden said. “Albayrak in particular has close ties to Jared Kushner and history of using shady dealings to advance Erdoğan’s interests.”