Reza Zarrab, the Turkey-based ringleader of Iran’s sanctions-evasion network who laundered over $20 billion in the biggest sanctions-evasion scheme in recent history, continues to make headlines.
A series of deeply researched exposés published in September by a global network of investigative journalists show that Tehran’s Turkish operations “started earlier, lasted longer, extended further, and involved more people and countries” than previously known.
Zarrab, however, is just one of the many Iranian operatives who exploited Turkey’s increasingly permissive jurisdiction within the last decade. The latest scandal, involving convicted Iranian drug trafficker Naji Sharifi Zindashti, underlines the extent to which Turkey’s political and legal establishment has been penetrated by and is serving illicit Iranian interests.
Zarrab, Iran’s highest-profile sanctions-buster to date, in 2011 drafted a letter to the general manager of the Central Bank of Iran declaring his “national and moral duty” to participate in “anti-sanction policies.” To this end, Zarrab bribed Turkish ministers, senior bureaucrats, and bankers to facilitate sanctions evasion and to elicit a string of other favors, including a Turkish citizenship for himself. Following his 2016 arrest by U.S. authorities, Zarrab turned state’s witness and helped convict the deputy general manager of Halkbank – Turkey’s second largest public lender currently on trial at a Manhattan federal court for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. In his court testimony, Zarrab even implicated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Kingpin Zindashti’s case is as intriguing as that of Zarrab’s, but not nearly as covered. Turkish authorities arrested Zindashti on charges related to drug trafficking and murder in April 2018, a little over a year after Zarrab’s arrest in the United States. Zindashti was arrested in his residence along with four individuals who were then current or previous members of the Turkish police. The arrests resulted from Zindashti’s reported revenge killings in retaliation for his daughter’s 2014 murder by his rivals.
Zindashti, who is of Iranian Kurdish background, reportedly had relations with the Kurdish cartels responsible for trafficking the two metric tons of heroin that the Greek coast guard seized on a ship in 2014. When these Kurdish drug lords suspected Zindashti to be the snitch who had informed about the vessel and its cargo, they started threatening him. Zindashti had earlier acted as “secret witness” in a high-profile political case against an alleged secularist terrorist network that the Erdogan government used to eliminate Turkish opposition figures, which many believe was Zindashti’s way out of legal troubles in Turkey following his September 2007 arrest for trafficking heroin.
Following his 2018 arrest, Zindashti again succeeded in persuading a judge to release him after spending a mere six months in prison.
Although the prosecutor of the case immediately pushed for a new arrest warrant, Zindashti and his men fled the country before another judge could issue the warrant. Since then, Zindashti’s release has been under investigation, and journalists have raised allegations against late Burhan Kuzu, a founding member of and a former Turkish lawmaker from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), for his pressure on the judge overseeing Zindashti’s case. Six months after Zindashti’s puzzling release, Turkey’s pro-secular Cumhuriyet daily published a photograph exposing Kuzu having dinner with Zindashti.
Kuzu was quick to deny any association with Zindashti and stated that the dinner was the first and only setting in which he interacted with the drug lord. However, a subsequent exposé showed WhatsApp messages between Kuzu and an accomplice of Zindashti attempting to arrange a meeting between the two. Since then, one of Zindashti’s rivals filed a criminal complaint against Kuzu on the grounds that Kuzu used his influence and position to exert pressure on the judiciary to keep him in prison as a favor to Zindashti.
Despite the mounting evidence and allegations surrounding the true nature of Kuzu and Zindashti’s relationship and how Zindashti utilized that relationship to his own advantage, Kuzu continues to deny knowing or having done any favors for the drug lord regarding the criminal charges brought against him. He recently stated that he was introduced to Zindashti by Aliye Uzun, a member of AKP’s women’s branch in Istanbul. Uzun reportedly offered to assist Zindashti in acquiring Turkish citizenship in exchange for a bribe of 500,000 Turkish liras($175,000) and an additional 150,000 liras ($52,500) to begin the process in 2016. These allegations show the ease with which Zindashti navigated the Turkish ruling party’s inner circles to buy influence and continue his illicit affairs.
Zindashti made use of his connections not only with Turkish politicians but also with law enforcement. There are further allegations by Zindashti’s rivals that Zindashti bribed the police officers investigating his daughter’s execution so that they could provide him with information on his rivals suspected of planning the murder. Many of these rivals subsequently ended up dead, as the hitmen appeared have used tips from the police.
Alongside the reprisal killings for the death of his daughter, Turkish police reportedly suspects that the regime in Iran employed Zindashti’s assistance in the assassination of Saeed Karimian, the Iranian-British owner of GEM TV, a dissident of the Islamic Republic. Just like the Zarrab case, this allegation about Zindashti is yet another example of the ways in which Tehran taps into illicit actors based in Turkey to carry out the regime’s dirty work.
Although Iran and Turkey remain on opposing sides in Syria and continue to compete for hegemony in the Middle East, Ankara and Tehran have succeeded in compartmentalizing relations and finding ways to cooperate against the West and their common adversaries in the region. Erdogan, the increasingly authoritarian leader of majority Sunni Turkey, has little sympathy for Iran’s Shiite majority or Tehran’s Shiite proxies, but he, just like his Islamist mentor Necmettin Erbakan, looks with admiration to the Islamic Republic and its crusade against the West. This ideological proclivity, combined with personal greed as a motivating factor and Turkey’s rampant culture of impunity, provides Iran and its operatives opportunities to exploit as they use NATO-member Turkey for their illicit operations.
Zindashti, just like Zarrab, represents simply the tip of the Iranian iceberg in Turkey. Until the Erdogan government is voted out, the rule of law is restored, and Turkey returns to a pro-secular orientation, Tehran will continue to find a permissive jurisdiction for its nefarious activities.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.