Washington (GPA) – The White House has apparently rejected a deal with Turkey to release a jailed pastor that has caused recent tension.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, the government of Turkey has apparently offered to return the jailed US pastor Andrew Brunson. In return, Ankara has asked for fines to be lifted from one of Turkey’s largest banks, exposing one of the real causes behind the rot in US-Turkish relations.
The bank in question is Halkbank, a larger financial institution whose major shareholder is the Turkish government. The fines leveled on Halkbank are a result of the bank breaking US sanctions on Iran. But these aren’t new sanctions, and this case dates all the way back to 2013 when a corruption scandal that almost toppled then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey resulted in the resignation of three of Erdogan’s ministers (and the temporary arrests of their sons) after allegations came to light of bribery, corruption, and smuggling. This came at a time when Turkey was seemingly trying much harder to join the European Union than today and the corruption allegations were a likely a factor in making Brussels rethink allowing Turkey to join the EU.
This corruption didn’t interest the US, however. What Washington was interested in was the smuggling aspect of the case. This smuggling operation revealed that a young Turkish gold trader – who is now in a US prison – Reza Zarrab was helping Halkbank skirt sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan’s ministers stepped down but there were never any charges pressed on the three ministers sons involved in the multiple schemes. Zarrab was also released from prison with no charges which obviously caused discomfort in the US.
Zarrab managed to walk free in Turkey thanks to Erdogan who got his first taste of political purges following this case, clearing out judges, prosecutors, and police working on the case. As the case unfolded it became pretty obvious that since three of Erdogan’s top ministers were involved, the Prime Minister must have known something. This later turned out to be basically confirmed by evidence presented by Zarrab.
After Zarrab went free in Turkey he must have presumed he was off the hook for everything because he later traveled to the US and was arrested. Following some time in federal custody, Zarrab turned state’s witness and helped send Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla to a US prison for fifteen to twenty years.
Erdogan tried multiple times to get Zarrab released into Turkish custody under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump but once Zarrab began working with the Department of Justice, it was obvious that wouldn’t happen. Instead, what Zarrab did was detail a scheme where Halkbank would invest in shell corporations based in countries like China which would buy gold from Zarrab to exchange for Iranian oil through financial institutions in Dubai.
When these were the public facts of the case, Erdogan initially claimed Zarrab’s fate was of “no interest” to Turkey but that changed later when Zarrab alleged that Erdogan had personally signed off on some of the Halkbank schemes. Erdogan denies this but it has always seemed very likely, especially considering Zarrab was close enough to Erdogan to give $4.5 million to his wife Emine Erdogan’s charity.
Zarrab is now in a US prison for 32 months but the sanctions violation case against Halkbank has yet to be resolved. Erdogan initially offered to trade Andrew Brunson for the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen but that seems to be on the backburner now that the Turkish economy is on the brink.
This isn’t something really discussed in-depth by the western media but this case plays a large role in US calculations towards Turkey and the greater Middle East in general.
Trump is currently trying to isolate Iran and is going to need every ally he can to march in lock-step with him against Tehran. Turkey would be an important nation to have in this position due to their location right next to Iran and their substantial military (the second largest in NATO).
This ploy for relief from Iran-adjacent fines may have worked under Obama, although maybe not the hostage negotiation aspect but that door is closed. With Trump eyeing Iran, the US is doing whatever they can to get allies from Europe to Asia to comply with his new sanctions on Tehran. The Turkey-NATO relationship is on the verge of a breakdown and with Ankara flirting with Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing, it is easy to see why Turkey has finally managed to get Trump’s attention.