A senior executive at one of Turkey’s most established state-owned banks was arrested in the United States on Monday in connection with a scheme to evade trade sanctions on nuclear Iran -- ramping up political strains between the U.S. and Turkey.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy chief executive officer at Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, is being accused of shady dealings with Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, to launder hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of Iran and Iranian companies through the U.S. financial system.
It was unclear whether Atilla hired lawyers for his defense, Reuters reported.
The consequences of this arrest came at a trying time for U.S.-Turkish affairs. Turkey had been one of the West’s strongest allies in the Middle East for decades, but Zarrab’s arrest and conflicting tactics over Syria’s civil war and fallout have escalated tensions between the United States and Turkey.
According to a criminal complaint made public on Tuesday, Atilla collaborated with Zarrab and others from 2010 to 2015 to hide Zarrab’s ability to supply currency and gold to Iran’s government and a number of entities in Iran through a Turkish bank, without exposing the bank to U.S. sanctions.
As part of this plan, Atilla and Zarrab duped several U.S. banks into processing transactions through fake invoices and front companies, according to investigators. To make the transactions seem like they were humanitarian immunities to the sanctions, they were often disguised to appear as though they involved food, prosecutors added.
“United States sanctions are not mere requests or suggestions, they are the law,” Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim in Manhattan said in a statement.
After being arrested on Monday, Atilla was set to appear in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday. He is charged with conspiracies to commit bank fraud, which carries a maximum 30-year prison sentence in addition to violating U.S. sanctions, which carries a maximum 20-year term.
Zarrab, a dual citizen of Iran and Turkey, had a prior arrest in 2013 in a corruption probe into people with close ties to then-Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Zarrab also has close relations with Erdogan’s presidential administration who accused the U.S. of ulterior motives last year in bringing forward the case of Zarrab’s arrest.
The U.S. has said it has evidence that Zarrab paid millions of dollars in bribes to Turkish government officials and top executives at Halkbank, which assisted in processing the payments, Bloomberg reports.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be making a one-day visit to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, this week where he will discuss Syria with Erdogan, U.S. officials say.