Amid Fears of Political Influence by the Trump Administration, an Iranian-Turkish Case Preet Bharara's Successor Must Pursue
There's another reason we should all be alarmed by the unceremonious firing of Preet Bharara, outgoing U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Bharara is presently involved in a case against Reza Zarrab, a dual Iranian-Turkish national accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. Investigators initially focused on Zarrab's sanctions evasion. Then they discovered that Zarrab was in close contact with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, who used Illicit funds to provide weapons, financing and logistics for jihadi groups in Syria including ISIS.
Bharara has a reputation as a non-partisan professional. He is known for independence and resisting direction, which led to tensions with the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of State.
As it happens, Bharara's dismissal occurred the same day former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn admitted to obscuring ties with Turkish interests in violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Bharara's dismissal also occurred in the wake of recent contact between Berat Albayrak, Erdogan's son-in-law, and Jared Kushner.
Was Bharara's dismissal intended to suppress his prosecution of Zarrab? Closer scrutiny of Zarrab and his ties to Erdogan reveals a sordid picture.
Turkish police officers raided several homes of Erdogan cronies on Dec. 17, 2013. Prosecutors accused 14 people, including Zarrab, of bribery, corruption, fraud and money laundering.
Erdogan made special efforts to shield Zarrab, dismissing prosecutors on the case. Erdogan also went out of his way to vouch for Zarrab's character, lauding him as a "philanthropist" who had "contributed to the country." (The Social Development Center for Education and Social Solidarity, founded by Emine Erdogan, Tayyip's wife, was a beneficiary of Zarrab's largesse.)
Zarrab was careless with his email. On Dec. 3, 2011, he wrote the governor of Iran's Central Bank expressing his readiness for "economic jihad against sanctions." Zarrab developed a plan for circumventing sanctions on Iran.
Iran was denied access to the SWIFT system of money transfers as a result of U.S. sanctions. Zarrab allegedly sent money to front companies in China, identifying the transfers as "export reimbursements." Chinese front companies transferred funds to companies in Turkey. The money was used to buy gold, which was transported to Iran via middlemen in Dubai.
Zarrab arrived at Miami International Airport on March 19, 2016. While going through customs, he was taken out of the queue, handcuffed and arrested.
Serious charges could put Zarrab behind bars for a very long time. If convicted, Zarrab could be sent to jail for five years for defrauding the United States; 20 years for violating the International Emergency Powers Act, which regulates Iran sanctions; 30 years for bank fraud; and 20 years for money laundering. After unsealing the indictment, Bharara tweeted: "[Zarrab will] soon face justice in a Manhattan courtroom."
Erdogan may be worried as well. When Zarrab was arrested, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the opposition Republican People's Party said, "All the dirty laundry will come out. Many people won't sleep a wink tonight." In exchange for a reduced sentence or a deal to retain his assets, Zarrab could implicate Erdogan and his family members.
Zarrab's trial was scheduled for January 2017. However, his lawyers at Baker & McKenzie requested a delay. Were they hoping that Bharara would drop the charges or that the Trump administration would intervene on Zarrab's behalf?
This much is certain: The Trump administration does not want to be seen as meddling in the case against an Iranian sanctions evader. Nor does it want to be accused of obstructing an investigation into money laundering, with potential benefit to the Islamic State.