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Turkish-Iranian gold trader’s ‘Beautiful Mind’ testimony drove U.S. sanctions case

Turkish-Iranian gold trader’s ‘Beautiful Mind’ testimony drove U.S. sanctions case

Court documents related to a recent U.S. case detail the blockbuster testimony of a gold trader at the center of a multifaceted scheme involving NATO ally Turkey helping Iran evade nuclear sanctions at a critical moment when its economy teetered.

On Jan. 3, a jury convicted the deputy general manager for international banking at Turkish state bank Halkbank of bank fraud as well as conspiracies to violate the Iran sanctions, defraud the U.S., commit bank fraud, and money-laundering.

Key testimony against the banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, came from 34-year-old gold trader Reza Zarrab, an Iranian with Turkish nationality who pleaded guilty to being at the center of the largest sanctions evasion scheme in modern history and who became the prosecution’s star witness.

“Zarrab gets up [on the stand] and really takes on the persona of a Harvard business professor,” Jonathan Schanzer, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who is now the vice president of research the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), said at a recent event about the case. “And with dry-erase boards, starts to just sketch out the entire scheme — all the different banks, the companies, the individuals.

“He’s got a flow chart. He’s got dotted lines. He’s got arrows. It’s really like the movie ‘Beautiful Mind.’ You really see this guy laying it all out there.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment. Atilla’s  sentencing is scheduled for April 11; the bank fraud conviction alone carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

Starting in 2012, Turkey helped Iran evade biting U.S. sanctions by providing billions of dollars worth of gold in exchange for Iranian natural gas and oil. Iran would then exchange the gold for foreign cash. Halkbank processed the transactions. FDD, which helped the prosecution, estimated that the massive scheme — which also involved gold also being sent through the UAE — provided Iran with about $13 billion between March 2012 and July 2013.

And the surreptitious sanctions relief came at a crucial time: The interim nuclear deal, which decreased debilitating economic sanctions on Iran and set the framework for further negotiations, was not signed in November 2013.

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