US charges Turkish bank with evading Iran sanctions

State-owned Halkbank accused in US of illegally moving about $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds.

Ben Ariel ,

Halkbank branch in central Istanbul
Halkbank branch in central Istanbul

The United States has criminally charged a major Turkish bank with helping to evade sanctions against Iran, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

According to AP, the charges against Halkbank, a state-owned bank, were announced Tuesday, years after a wealthy gold trader was arrested in Florida.

Before pleading guilty and testifying against a co-defendant, the Turkish-Iranian businessman, Reza Zarrab, hired Rudy Giuliani to lobby the administration of President Donald Trump to drop the charges as part of a prisoner exchange.

In a release, US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said senior officials at Halkbank had designed and carried out the scheme to move billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenue illegally.

According to the indictment, Halkbank illegally moved about $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds. It said the bank let Iranian oil and gas money be used to buy gold that was not exported to Iran and let transactions fraudulently designed to appear to be purchases of food and medicine by Iranian customers proceed, qualifying those funds for a "humanitarian exception" allowed under the sanctions.

Berman said the crimes were supported and protected by high-ranking Turkish government officials who received millions of dollars in bribes to promote and protect the scheme.

A representative of the bank could not immediately be reached for comment.

Trump announced recently that he had ordered a “substantial increase” in sanctions on Iran and later announced that the US has sanctioned the Iranian National Bank.

The sanctions followed drone strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia which the US blamed on Iran.

The US has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Meanwhile, the charges against the Turkish bank could be significant as the Trump administration tries to press Turkey to limit its military incursions in Syria.

The US imposed limited sanctions on Turkey this week and has threatened more. While the charges against Halkbank are not related, they could give the US leverage as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O'Brien travel to Turkey, noted AP.