How Iran Benefits From an Illicit Gold Trade With Turkey

An obscure loophole allows Tehran to profit while skirting Western sanctions.
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A customer buys Iranian gold coins at a currency exchange office in Tehran's business district on October 24, 2011. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has arrived in Washington, D.C. for a much-anticipated summit with President Barack Obama. The timing of the visit -- amid reports of chemical weapons usage in Syria and an attack against a Turkish border town by alleged Syrian agents -- will make it hard to talk about anything other than the civil war in Syria.

But some members of Congress want to draw attention to a less-obvious issue. Last month, a bipartisan group of 47 members of Congress penned a letter to Secretaries John Kerry and Jack Lew calling for clarification on Turkey's financial dealings with Iran. Under the initiative of South Carolina Republican Representative Jeff Duncan, the letter expressed deep concerns over Turkey's gold dealings that have helped Iran skirt Western sanctions designed to curtail Tehran's illicit nuclear program.

Turkey's gold dealings have helped Iran skirt Western sanctions designed to curtail Tehran's illicit nuclear program.

In February 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Turkey's state-owned bank, Halkbank, was processing "payments from third parties for Iranian goods." This included "payments for Indian refiners unable to pay Tehran for imported oil through their own banking system for fear of retribution from Washington." Separately, the Journal also reported that the Turkish bank was responsible for many of Turkey's "gas-for-gold" transactions with Iran despite an executive order issued by the Obama administration prohibiting gold payments to the government of Iran. As Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan frankly admitted, Turkey's "gold exports [to Iran] end up like payments for our natural gas purchases."

The system was simple. As Reuters notes, Turkey purchased Iranian natural gas in Turkish lira, and transferring the proceeds to Halkbank accounts. Iranian gold traders then accessed the funds to buy gold in Turkey, which was subsequently carried in luggage to Dubai, and then sold for foreign currency to help sure up Tehran's dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

Remarkably, it was legal under the current sanctions regime, as long as the Obama administration couldn't prove that Turkish gold payments were made to the government of Iran (which strained credulity given Turkey's public admissions that they were selling gold to Iran in exchange for Iranian energy).

To plug this loophole, the Obama administration on January 13, 2013, put in place new legislation that imposed a blanket prohibition on all gold sales to Iran. However, the administration requested that the sanctions only become effective after six months, thereby granting Turkey and other countries a six-month exemption from the tougher gold sanctions, which is now set to expire on July 1, 2013.

With the window still open, according to Iran's state-owned Press TV, Turkey and Iran reportedly completed a $120 million gold deal within days of the announcement. According to Hurriyet , Turkey's gold exports to Iran rose twofold in March, totaling some $381 million. According to a report by Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Roubini Global Economics, " Iran's golden loophole" has allowed Iran to receive over $6 billion since July 30, 2012, when the administration could have started prohibiting Turkish gold sales. In the first quarter of 2013 alone, Iran has received $1.3 billion in gold payments, either directly from Turkey, or through the UAE.

Presented by

Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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