The U.S.-Turkey dis­pute piv­ots on a gold dealer fac­ing trial

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - DAVID IG­NATIUS David Ig­natius is pub­lished twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

At the cen­ter of the in­creas­ingly bit­ter dis­pute be­tween the U.S. and Turkey is a de­mand by an irate Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan that Amer­i­can pros­e­cu­tors free a Turk­ish-Ira­nian gold dealer who’s about to go on trial on money-laun­der­ing and fraud charges.

The con­fronta­tion sharp­ened Thurs­day, as Er­do­gan protested in Ankara that the busi­ness­man, Reza Zarrab, was be­ing squeezed as a “false wit­ness” about cor­rup­tion. Turkey alarmed Wash­ing­ton by ar­rest­ing a U.S. con­sular of­fi­cial this week, in what some U.S. of­fi­cials feared was an at­tempt to gain lever­age for Zarrab’s re­lease be­fore the sched­uled Nov. 27 start of his trial in New York. Turk­ish and Amer­i­can of­fi­cials plan to meet next week for talks to ease ten­sions.

What dirt could Zarrab dish in court? A pos­si­ble pre­view comes in a May 2016 court fil­ing by then-U.S. At­tor­ney Preet Bharara. Cit­ing a De­cem­ber 2013 Turk­ish pros­e­cu­tor’s re­port, Bharara’s memo said the Turk­ish ev­i­dence “de­scribes a mas­sive bribery scheme ex­e­cuted by Zarrab and oth­ers, pay­ing Cab­i­net-level gov­ern­men­tal of­fi­cials and high-level bank of­fi­cers tens of mil­lions of euro and U.S. dol­lars to fa­cil­i­tate Zarrab’s net­work’s trans­ac­tions for the ben­e­fit of Iran” to evade U.S. sanc­tions against that coun­try. Bharara’s memo noted that these “con­clu­sions are cor­rob­o­rated by emails ob­tained through the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Er­do­gan’s cam­paign to free Zarrab has been ex­tra­or­di­nary. He de­manded his re­lease as well as the fir­ing of Bharara in a pri­vate meet­ing with then-Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den on Sept. 21, 2016, in which U.S. of­fi­cials say half the 90-minute con­ver­sa­tion was de­voted to Zarrab. Er­do­gan’s wife pleaded the case that night to Jill Bi­den. Turk­ish Jus­tice Min­is­ter Bekir Bozdag vis­ited then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta Lynch in Oc­to­ber to ar­gue that the case was “based on no ev­i­dence,” and that Zarrab should be re­leased.

Er­do­gan ap­pealed per­son­ally about the mat­ter in his last two phone calls with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, in De­cem­ber and early Jan­uary, for­mer aides say. “Our op­er­at­ing as­sump­tion was that Er­do­gan’s ob­ses­sion with the case was that if it moved for­ward, in­for­ma­tion would come out that would dam­age his fam­ily, and ul­ti­mately him,” one for­mer se­nior Obama of­fi­cial said.

Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment be­gan cul­ti­vat­ing Don­ald Trump’s team be­fore the elec­tion. Michael Flynn, then a cam­paign aide, was hired as a pro-Turkey lob­by­ist, and his firm con­tin­ued to re­ceive Turk­ish money dur­ing the tran­si­tion. Af­ter Flynn re­signed as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in Fe­bru­ary, the Turks be­gan work­ing with Rudy Gi­u­liani, a close Trump ad­viser.

The case is toxic to Er­do­gan be­cause it in­ter­sects with his neme­sis, the self-ex­iled Turk­ish preacher Fethul­lah Gulen, who lives in Penn­syl­va­nia. Er­do­gan blames Gulen’s fol­low­ers for gath­er­ing and leak­ing the 2013 ev­i­dence about Zarrab, which Turk­ish me­dia re­ports say in­cluded al­le­ga­tions against Er­do­gan’s fam­ily. When Er­do­gan met with Bi­den a year ago, he claimed bizarrely that Bharara was a Gu­lenist tool, ac­cord­ing to a for­mer of­fi­cial.

Gi­u­liani’s in­volve­ment is one of the many un­usual as­pects of this case. He con­tacted Bharara on Feb. 24 to in­form him that he planned to travel to Ankara on Zarrab’s be­half. Trump fired Bharara in March; around that time, Gi­u­liani be­gan press­ing the Jus­tice De­part­ment for “some agree­ment be­tween the United States and Turkey” to aid Amer­i­can “se­cu­rity in­ter­ests” and help Zarrab, Gi­u­liani said in a fil­ing with the court.

De­spite these var­i­ous at­tempts to halt the pros­e­cu­tion, the case rolled for­ward – and even broad­ened in an ex­panded in­dict­ment last month that named a for­mer Turk­ish Cab­i­net min­is­ter and three other prom­i­nent Turks. Turkey’s Jus­tice Min­is­ter Bekir Bozdag on Sept. 11 con­demned the ex­panded charges as another “coup at­tempt.” Er­do­gan sees Gu­lenist plot­ting be­hind the 2013 al­le­ga­tions against his in­ner cir­cle and a failed July 2016 mil­i­tary coup.

Er­do­gan may have hoped that Trump would sup­port his push to free Zarrab. And Trump ini­tially seemed sym­pa­thetic to the Turk­ish leader, invit­ing him to Wash­ing­ton for a May meet­ing. But that visit was marred when Er­do­gan’s se­cu­rity de­tail at­tacked pro­test­ers out­side the Turk­ish Em­bassy; and Trump’s ma­neu­ver­ing room has nar­rowed be­cause of in­ves­ti­ga­tions sur­round­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Some U.S. of­fi­cials fear that Er­do­gan might be seek­ing bar­gain­ing chips in the de­ten­tion of Pas­tor An­drew Brun­son, ar­rested a year ago on charges he backed Gulen, and the ar­rest last week of Metin Topuz, a long­time em­ployee of the U.S. Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, who a Turk­ish news­pa­per has al­leged was in con­tact with a pro-Gulen pros­e­cu­tor back in 2013. And Er­do­gan him­self sug­gested last month a trade of Brun­son for Gulen.

The phrase “NATO ally” is re­peated so often about Turkey that it ob­scures how ad­ver­sar­ial and au­to­cratic re­cent Turk­ish ac­tions have been. Wash­ing­ton is wor­ried about what’s next.

Ev­i­dence de­scribes a bribery scheme to fa­cil­i­tate Zarrab’s trans­ac­tions for the ben­e­fit of Iran

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