Turkey has been on a steady glide path to dictatorship for well over a decade, as Islamist ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated power, eliminated his political foes, and bought out or shut down critical media.
But the Reichstag fire that propelled him to dictator status occurred last July, when an amateurish coup d’etat allowed him to purge 120,000 government employees and jail more than 40,000 of his political opponents.
Erdogan called the failed coup a “gift from God.” Indeed, it has given him a pretext to eliminate all opposition media and to impose strict border controls to catch would-be opponents as they attempt to leave the country, as totalitarians have done for generations.
Less known to the general public — and absolutely critical for understanding Erdogan’s reason for coming to Washington on May 16 to meet with President Trump — are his ties to the Islamic State of Iran.
A 900-page indictment compiled by Turkish state prosecutors in 2013 spelled out details of those ties, which allegedly involve billions of dollars in bribes from an Iranian government money-laundering network paid to Erdogan, his family, and cronies in government.
Americans would know little about that investigation — or indeed, Erdogan’s corrupt ties to Tehran — were it not for the missteps of the alleged money-launderer-in-chief, 33-year old Turkish-Iranian citizen Reza Zarrab, who was arrested by Customs and Border Patrol agents in March 2016 at a Florida airport while attempting to take his family to Disney World.
Zarrab is now facing prosecution in New York on money-laundering charges and has hired an impressive stable of white-shoe attorneys, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose law firm is a registered foreign agent for Turkey.
Giuliani was outed by federal prosecutor Michael Lockard after court filings in which Giuliani explained a late February 2017 meeting with Erdogan as an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the Zarrab case that would be in America’s national security interest.
Dr. Ahmet Yayla, a highly-respected former police chief in southeastern Turkey, believes that Erdogan tasked Giuliani with proposing a deal to President Trump: drop prosecution against Zarrab in exchange for Turkish acquiescence to U.S. arming the Kurds. Even Zarrab’s chief defense lawyer admitted that Giuliani’s role in the case was unprecedented.
The original Turkish indictment, which Yayla shared with me, detailed Zarrab’s vast alleged oil-for-gold money laundering scheme that allowed Iran to circumvent international sanctions, sell upwards of $200 billion in oil and use the Turkish banking system by paying bribes to Erdogan and members of his immediate family.
Prosecutors in Turkey arrested Zarrab on December 17, 2013, for paying bribes to four members of then Prime Minister Erdogan’s cabinet, including his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. Erdogan then fired the prosecutors, police investigators and judges involved in the probe.
Two months later, audiotapes of phone conversations between Erdogan and his son, Bilal, posted on line, revealed Erdogan instructing his son to remove $1 billion in cash from his home and the homes of family members before the police arrived. (Erdogan has not disputed the authenticity of his voice, but claims the tapes were altered).
But the real scandal is Erdogan’s deep ties to Tehran, which go way beyond the Zarrab money-laundering scheme and Erdogan’s corruption.
I first got wind of Iran’s extensive intelligence network in Turkey during a 1994 reporting trip to Istanbul for Time Magazine. The French counter-terrorism judge investigating the murder of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the former shah, recommended me to Istanbul police chief Nezdet Menzir, who he said had provided critical intelligence on the Iranian government hit team that had carried out the Bakhtiar assassination.
During several days of meetings, Menzir not only provided me information on the specific Iranian hit team that had used Turkey as a logistics hub for the assassination in France, but detailed a vast Iranian government intelligence network then operating in Turkey that was responsible for the murder of Turkish journalists and intellectuals.
Yayla says a second Turkish government indictment, also shut down by Erdogan in December 2013, detailed the ongoing efforts of that same Iranian government intelligence network in Turkey. Only now, it named the Iranian regime’s top operatives.
They include members of Erdogan’s cabinet and, most astonishingly, the current director of Turkish National Intelligence, Hakan Fidan, according to Yayla.
No wonder Erdogan wants to meet President Trump, get front-man Zarrab away from American prosecutors and reporters, and has paid $1.1 millionto a Washington, D.C., public relations firm for one week’s work during his visit. The Iranian skeletons in his closet would sink a ship.
Instead of giving in to his demands, the President should inform Erdogan that the United States will be arming the Kurds regardless of Turkish policies, and could make things much worse for Erdogan should the Turks again bomb our Kurdish allies in Syria. Why should we save his sinking ship?
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Hill.