On August 28, an event took place in Washington that few media covered at all. To the extent that they did at all, it was to report on Nicky Haley’s speech criticizing the United Nation’s organization (UNRWA) that has kept the Palestinians branded and supported as refugees ever since 1948. The event at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies (FDD) main purpose was to give Haley, a star of the Trump Administration, another award, but there was another part of it that was more politically significant. That was awards given to 7 FBI and Department of Justice officials for their work in preventing Turkish government efforts to circumvent Iran sanctions.
What was most unusual about the appearance of these officials, who are normally seen in public only when their presence is required in court, that they not only appeared, but also made public remarks that were of political significance going forward. This is especially the case with remarks made by FBI agent Jennifer McReynolds (full remarks can be obtained from FDD). What she said was so politically sensitive that it was almost certainly approved ahead of time and was meant as a political message to Ankara.
McReynolds first said that high-level Turkish officials, including the minister of justice, the foreign minister and Erdogan himself had unsuccessfully lobbied the US government, including the White House, to have Reza Zarrab, the key individual involved in the sanctions busting, and Mehmet Hakan Attila, the key official of the state-owned bank, Halkbank, released without trial. Moreover, according to McReynolds, the implications from the FBI/DOJ investigation of the sanction busting by Turkey are far from over. She strongly implied that many more high Turkish officials had been indicted, but are yet to be brought to justice. She also stated that the sanctions avoidance plan carried out by Zarrab had been designed by Attilla of Halkbank, in other words, it had been Turkish state policy. Overall, she left the impression that indictments and persecution in the case are far from finished and a major fine of Halkbank is yet to be expected.
It will be recalled that when the case first broke several years ago, there were numerous rumors of high-level bribes going all the way to the prime-minister’s office (Erdogan). To that extent, it is significant that McReynolds publicly praised Turkish prosecutor, Husseyn Korkmaz, who first prosecuted the Zarrab affair before he was stopped by Erdogan. It is also worth remembering that, at the time, the high-flying Zarrab was openly boasting that he had alone helped cut the Turkish account deficit by some 15% and had helped the Iranians to the tune of $20 billion. It is no wonder that nobody in the Turkish government-controlled media has been eager to bring this story to the public. An honorable exception is the independent al-monitor.com website and its excellent Washington correspondent Amberin Zaman.
As things stand today, Mehmet Hakan Attila has been sentenced to 33 month is jail and is already serving his sentence. Zarrab has not been sentenced and that should be a cause for concern by Erdogan. Because it appears certain that Zarrab is cooperating with the prosecution in return for a milder sentence and that, almost certainly, is bad news for Erdogan.
By Alex Alexiev