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What the Iran sanctions case in New York means for Turkey and Erdogan

- December 2, 2017
Front pages of Turkish newspapers with headlines about the New York trial of a Turkish banker charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

In an ongoing federal trial in New York, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accused of personally approving a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. Iranian Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, a key prosecution witness, told the jury Thursday that Erdogan had personally given an order to execute the trade. Coupled with corruption allegations against top Turkish government officials, the accusations in the case are set to create major ramifications for U.S.-Turkey relations and Turkish domestic politics. Critically, Zarrab — the man in the middle of the alleged gold-for-cash scheme to evade sanctions – has admitted his involvement.

This case illustrates the intricate links between international and domestic politics, and how they can undermine the notion of the national interest.

It is striking that Turkish government officials — and, by extension, Erdogan himself — are being tried in an American court for evading U.S. sanctions on Iran. This case will likely alter the course of bilateral U.S.-Turkish relations for the foreseeable future, unraveling an already precarious diplomatic situation, and accelerate the erosion of Turkey’s place in the Western bloc. If it is proven that Erdogan personally approved the violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran, the case will deeply complicate Turkey’s place in the Trump administration’s emerging coalition against Tehran.

Here are three things you need to know about the matter.

1. The case is rooted in Turkey’s political crisis:

It began in 2013 in a conflict between the Turkish government under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a movement led by a Turkish dissident, Fethullah Gulen. When Gulen-associated police and judicial officials charged Zarrab and scores of government officials with corruption and participating in an intricate scheme to evade sanctions against Iran, the judiciary and a commission led by AKP parliamentarians quickly dismissed the charges.

In March 2016, Zarrab was arrested in Florida on charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. American officials also arrested the deputy CEO of the state bank at the center of corruption allegations in March 2017 on related charges of Iran sanctions evasion. Zarrab began cooperating with the prosecution team in the case and is now the “star witness” of an Iran sanctions evasion case that squarely targets major Turkish officials, including Erdogan himself.

It is remarkable that the United States gathered evidence and ran its own independent investigation into a corruption scheme that involved high-ranking Turkish government officials. This could explain why Turkish government officials, most prominently Erdogan, upped their anti-American rhetoric after 2013 — even questioning Turkey’s membership in NATO.

The prosecution of Zarrab and the corruption charges against top Turkish government officials in the gold-for-cash scheme builds on Gulen’s role in a foiled 2016 coup attempt — and the ensuing purge of Gulen loyalists from the Turkish state and civic life. Likewise, the Turkish government is also blaming Gulen’s followers for collaborating with and exercising an outsize influence over the American judicial system by supplying the prosecution team with allegedly fabricated evidence that was discredited in the 2013 corruption probe. The Turkish government charges that the entire Iran sanctions case in the United States is retribution by Gulen for the failed coup, laying the groundwork for Erdogan to dismiss the results of the trial.

2. The case won’t necessarily hurt Erdogan at home

The court case is unlikely to sway public opinion against Erdogan in Turkey. It is getting little coverage in Turkish media outlets. The poor state of press freedom in Turkey is a key factor, and concerns over negative coverage of the case will likely choke the Turkish media even further.

In order to relieve domestic pressure, the Turkish government is likely to increase suppression of opposition groups. Former and current opposition figures already face prosecution and threats should they help publicize corruption allegations against Erdogan.

The potential conviction of Turkish government officials plays to Erdogan’s growing anti-Western rhetoric. It serves as further evidence, for Erdogan and his supporters, that the West will not tolerate promising, strong leaders who pursue independent foreign policies. This perception feeds popular narratives that Islamists in Turkey and elsewhere hold about Western or American policies in the region. It also resonates well with extremely high levels of popular anti-Americanism in Turkey. Erdogan has long proven skilled at turning Western pressure to his domestic political advantage, and will likely continue to do so now.

3. The case could prove challenging for the Trump administration

The Turkish government has kept Zarrab and the New York court case against him under close scrutiny as routine concerns for Turkey’s national interest. Over the past year, however, the Turkish government lobbied the Trump administration for favors, particularly in matters involving this case.

Turkish ministers, the prime minister and Erdogan himself demanded the dismissal from the prosecution team of the U.S. attorney leading the case, Preet Bharara, and lobbied the United States to drop the entire case because of “ulterior motives.”

This case also intersects in dangerous ways with the ongoing Russian collusion investigation in the United States. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s collaboration with the Turkish government for Gulen’s extradition and dropping the Zarrab case is under scrutiny. In particular, various reports suggest that a “prisoner exchange” deal or efforts “to resolve the case at levels of above the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, which is overseeing the prosecution” were in the works.

What began as a domestic corruption probe in Turkey a few years ago has thus evolved into an international case with implications reaching far beyond Turkey’s borders. Zarrab’s cooperation with the prosecution lends further credibility to the charges brought against top Turkish officials and threatens to undermine U.S.-Turkey relations further.

A. Kadir Yildirim is a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. His main research interests include politics and religion, democratization, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.