Iran silent but under spotlight in Turkish corruption scandal

December 29, 2013, Sunday/ 00:00:00/ SİNEM CENGİZ

Iran is once more under the spotlight -- this time due to the major ongoing corruption and bribery investigation in Turkey involving a public bank, Halkbank, one of the three main targets of the operation, for its role in trade between Turkey and Iran; however, there is still no word from the Iranian side on the scandal that has shaken Turkey's political and business elite and pushed three ministers to resign on Wednesday.

One of the top suspects in the corruption case is an Iranian-Azerbaijani businessman, Reza Zarrab, who is currently under arrest as part of the investigation.

Zarrab is accused of being the ringleader in Turkey of a shady money-laundering and gold-smuggling ring established to dodge sanctions against Iran.

During the investigation, Zarrab told the prosecution that transactions were mainly conducted through Halkbank until July, when a new set of US sanctions placed restrictions on the gold trade.

Halkbank has long been active in trade between the two neighboring countries, Turkey and Iran, and this was no secret. The government has been grilled for violating sanctions against Iran, which was placed under a strict embargo by the United Nations for its nuclear program in 2010, by assigning Halkbank to handle payments for energy imports from the country.

Turkey was paying liras instead of dollars for energy purchases, and Iran was depositing this money in Turkish banks and then using it to buy gold from Turkey. Halkbank was the platform for conducting these transactions.

Zarrab, who has obtained Turkish citizenship and lives in Turkey, is said to have close links to Iran and his father is rumored to have had connections with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Zarrab, who faces various accusations, is alleged to have bribed three ministers and their sons with a total of TL 137 million ($66 million) to help him disguise money-laundering operations. Halkbank and its general manager, Süleyman Aslan, also under arrest, were involved in Turkey's gold trade with Iran.

However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised Zarrab for his contribution to the country's economy and charity events while addressing reporters aboard his plan on his return from Pakistan.

Today's Zaman phoned the Iranian Embassy in Ankara for comment on the accusations against Iran, but the embassy did not respond to repeated calls by the newspaper.

Speaking about the silence of Iran since the corruption scandal began to rock Turkey, Mehmet Şahin, an expert on Iranian politics and a professor of international relations at Gazi University in Ankara, stated that as part of the opening policy adopted by new Iranian President Hassan Rohani since he took office in early August, Tehran does not want to be seen as directly involved in Turkey's domestic issues in order to avoid sabotaging the reconciliation process it launched with the West.

“With the election of Rohani, Iran has adopted a conciliatory approach, based on maintaining peace with the West as well as avoiding conflicts with regional actors. The silence of Iran should not be read as Tehran being indifferent to what is happening in Turkey. Iran is following the issue closely but does not want to say a word in order to avoid narrowing its room to maneuver in its talks with the West,” Şahin told Today's Zaman.

Şahin was referring to the interim agreement reached between Tehran and Western powers on curbing Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions on the country after five-day marathon negotiations in Geneva in November.

The P5+1 countries' interim accord with Iran brings a halt to the country's nuclear program for the first time in a decade. Iran's uranium enrichment will be stopped for six months until a final settlement is reached, according to the deal. It will therefore be difficult for Iran to build a nuclear bomb in that period. The P5+1 is a group comprising five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- namely, the US, Russia, China, the UK and France -- plus Germany. The six countries joined diplomatic efforts in 2006 to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Meanwhile, experts believe that the Turkish government is looking for US and Israeli hands in the anti-corruption operation because of the use of Halkbank to circumvent the sanctions imposed on Iran.

Several pro-government media outlets claimed that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone had told several European Union ambassadors that Washington asked the bank to cut its ties with Iran -- allegations vehemently denied by the ambassador.

Şahin maintained that Iran, hard-pressed by UN sanctions, tried to break the sanctions through Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other neighboring countries.

“As a way to evade the embargo, Iran has increased the number of its companies in some countries, particularly Turkey and the UAE. Iranian companies are at the forefront of foreign companies established in Turkey,” said Şahin.

The number of Iranian companies established in Turkey has increased tremendously in recent years. Iranian companies left all others behind with an increase of 41 percent in 2012 over the previous year in terms of the number of newly established companies in Turkey.

Last year, 590 new Iranian companies were established in Turkey. Currently there are 2,116 companies said to have been established after 2010 in Turkey. Iran was Turkey's third-largest goods export market last year, according to the Ministry of Economy.

Erdoğan is anticipated to visit Iran in the coming days while Rohani is scheduled to visit Turkey in January. However, it is still a matter of question whether those visits will take place while Turkey is still in the midst of a major corruption investigation.

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