by Betsy Woodruff · March 17, 2017
The unceremonious firing of Preet Bharara last week—along with 45 other U.S. attorneys—generated significant consternation among Democrats about the way the forced resignations were handled.
But the firings likely led to celebration in Istanbul. That’s because as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Bharara oversaw the arrest and prosecution of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish national who allegedly helped run a scheme that funneled billions of dollars’ worth of gold into Iran, in violation of U.S. sanctions.
The alleged crime, dubbed the “Gas for Gold” scandal, may be among the largest money-laundering schemes in world history. From 2012 to 2013 alone, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Turkish government paid Iran $20 billion worth of gold for oil and natural gas. Zarrab’s trial is scheduled to begin on Aug. 21 of this year, according to court documents. And some expect he may testify that Turkish leaders—including close allies of President Recep Tayipp Erdogan—were involved in the scheme.
Bharara’s willingness bring charges against Zarrab made him a social media celebrity in Turkey. Shortly after Zarrab’s indictment was unsealed, The New York Times reported that Bharara’s Twitter following ballooned from just a few thousand people to more than 245,000. Many Turks saw him as willing to pick up where their judicial system failed, writing poetry about him and offering him gifts.
The prosecution had the potential to be geopolitically explosive. The indictment, which was unsealed on March 21, 2016, laid out an elaborate scheme by which Zarrab and two others worked with the Iranian government to pay the country in gold for gas that it produced, illegally infusing capital into its economy and blunting the impact of U.S. sanctions. Zarrab’s trial could put extraordinary scrutiny on Erdogan and his associates, depending on how the trial plays out.
So experts say Erdogan and his allies are deeply concerned about Zarrab’s coming court date.
“I think the Turks are very frightened by the prosecution, and given how dogged Preet Bharara is known as, they worry that a lot of stuff would be coming out,” said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who worked on intelligence issues and the Middle East.
“Clearly, I think the Turks are now hoping that whomever becomes the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District will not pursue this case as vigorously as Bharara was,” added Barkey, who now heads the Middle East program at the Wilson Center. “That remains to be seen.”
Barkey said the Turks will suspect that Bharara’s ouster means Zarrab would be more likely to get some sort of plea deal.
“With Preet, there was no chance,” he said. “But the moment you kick him out of the equation––if it was at zero percent chance, maybe it’s a 20 percent chance or 30 percent chance. There is a greater chance under somebody else.”
The Turkish embassy did not provide comment for this story.
Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Bharara’s firing would have delighted Erdogan.
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“When I heard Bharara was fired, I thought, oh my god, Turkish government officials must be dancing in the street, because Zarrab potentially can spill the beans on everything,” he said.
“President Erdogan and his people kind of fear this would become of those things that would be devastating to their political prospects in Turkey,” he said of the indictment. “This whole Reza Zarrab thing has really freaked them out.”
Erdogan isn’t the only world leader with a connection to Zarrab. President Donald Trump drew criticism on the campaign trail when news broke that Zarrab’s holding company, Royal A.S., was run out of Trump Tower in Istanbul.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, said Bharara’s ouster won’t impact the prosecution. Benjamin Brafman, the lead defense attorney for Zarrab, declined to comment.
At the least, whoever Trump nominates to take Bharara’s place will take responsibility for a prosecution that is politically electric—and has the potential to win him or her fans in surprising places.