Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law and the country’s current Finance Minister Berat Albayrak has been accused of facilitating a U.S. sanctions-busting scheme for Iran led by Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab.
Zarrab’s former courier Adem Karahan told OCCRP and Courthouse News that he had been assured by his boss that Turkish authorities were in on the scheme and would not cause problems.
The scheme started in 2008, in the form of suitcases filled with gold acquired over illicit oil sales, helping Iran evade U.S. economic sanctions over its nuclear programme. At least 200 tons of gold was taken to Dubai, and currency to Iran, Russia and United Arab Emirates until 2013. The Turkish government was aware of the scheme from the beginning, Karahan said.
Evidence submitted to U.S. courts in the case against Zarrab showed the businessman contacting former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, responding to Ayatollah Khamanei’s call for economic jihad against the sanctions.
Zarrab told Ahmadinejad, his father’s good friend according to Karahan, that his family “considers it to be our national and moral duty to declare our willingness to participate in any kind of cooperation in order to implement monetary and foreign exchange anti-sanction policies,” Courthouse news reported.
Ahmadinejad “of course took a bribe,” during a twenty-minute meeting with Zarrab in 2011 in Tehran according to Karahan, as the job could not be done without bribes. “Wherever Zarrab is, there is bribery.”
Zarrab and his partner Huseyin Agajooni used Aktif Bank, owned by Çalık Holding where Albayrak was CEO before entering politics, to drain Iranian accounts. The businessmen then offered their services to Iran’s central bank, as it was unable to move Iran’s money out of Turkey without violating sanctions.
Karahan was unable to open an account at Aktif Bank before Zarrab intervened, he told the reporters. Zarrab told Karahan that he visited Aktif Bank with Turkey’s then-European Union Minister Egemen Bağış and held a meeting. The businessman also sought help from Albayrak and Çalık Holding founder Ahmet Çalık, Karahan added.
Albayrak instructed Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank to let Zarrab continue the laundering operation after he was briefly arrested in Turkey in 2013, according to the indictment on Halkbank by a U.S. federal court. The minister has not been charged.
The Turkish president’s son-in-law met with U.S. President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner in the White House in 2019. Coordinating contact between the sons-in-law was another, son-in-law of Turkish oligarch Aydın Doğan, Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ. Zarrab’s Royal Holding had offices in the Trump Tower, where Yalçındağ was a partner.
The April meeting between Albayrak, Kushner, Trump and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came ahead of the Halkbank indictment, which Erdoğan tried to prevent.
Trump promised Turkish officials that he would halt any further enforcement actions against Halkbank, the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance said in a statement. Secretary Mnuchin later disclosed to the committee that he had met with Albayrak three times, in 2018 and 2019, where they discussed Halkbank’s case.