Yesterday, Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla was found guilty in a Manhattan courtroom for a range of financial crimes. His dramatic trial revealed that tens of billions in dollars and gold moved from Turkey to Iran through a complex network of businesses, banks, and front companies.
The trial was a long time coming. In late October of 2016, Justice Department officials paid a visit to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Washington-based think tank where I serve as senior vice president. They wanted to talk about Reza Zarrab. A dual Iranian-Turkish national, Zarrab was the swashbuckling gold trader who had helped Iran evade sanctions with the help of Turkish banks in 2013 and 2014, yielding Iran an estimated $13 billion at the height of the efforts to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. A leaked report by prosecutors in Istanbul in March 2014 suggested that Zarrab spearheaded a second sanctions-busting scheme involving fake invoices for billions more in fictitious humanitarian shipments to Iran that were processed through Turkish banks.
At FDD, we’d spent considerable time digging into Zarrab’s activities. Our think tank already had an established track record of identifying and exposing Iran’s malign activities. We had also just launched a new program to explore Turkey’s recent drift into Islamist authoritarianism. The more we investigated, the more we realized that Zarrab’s schemes, which could have helped Iran pocket more than $100 billion, rank among the largest sanctions evasion episode in modern history.