Analysis

Former Trump Aide Flynn's Legal Woes May Have Devastating Effects on Turkey

An Iranian businessman tied to Flynn and allegedly involved in 'oil-for-gold' deal that skirted U.S. sanctions on Iran is a ticking time bomb for Turkey's Erdogan

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Erdogan said he's looking forward to a "decisive meeting" with his U.S. counterpart Trump, whose decision to arm Kurdish groups against Islamic State in Syria has stoked tensions between the two NATO members. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Investigations of the former national security adviser appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump threaten to embroil Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the complexities of the American justice system.

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Erdogan has been raining down fire and brimstone lately on the U.S. administration, and particularly on the American justice system, which he says has been politically manipulating Turkey and him personally. Erdogan is referring to two complex affairs which have ensnared his government.

One involves Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s national security adviser for the blink of an eye. Contradicting his previous statements, Flynn admitted last week that he had acted under the oversight and direction of the Turkish government to promote Turkey’s interests in the United States, although he had registered as a foreign agent only after he was fired from his post as national security adviser.

>> What Michael Flynn’s guilty plea means for Jared Kushner and Israel | Explained <<

FILE PHOTO: Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn delivers a speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016
CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

The significance of Flynn’s confession is that while he was a member of Trump’s campaign team, he was representing Turkey’s interests while receiving a fee of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Flynn pled guilty to giving a false statement by not revealing his connections to senior figures in the Turkish government and by presenting his PR firm’s work for Turkey as part of his political worldview.

On November 8, 2016, a few days before he was appointed national security adviser, Flynn published an article on the respected political website The Hill, in which he said that the United States should take Turkey’s interests into account in pursuing its foreign policy. But not long before he became associated with Turkey, he had taken the opposite stand.

According to Politico, Flynn told members of the anti-Islamic advocacy group Act for America last year: “There’s an ongoing coup going on in Turkey right now – right now!” In response to cheers from the audience, Flynn said: ”Yeah, that is worth applauding.”

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledges supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a rally in Kars, eastern Turkey, December 2, 2017.
Yasin Bulbul/AP

But Flynn, who is very far from Erdogan’s positions, also has to make a living, and in exchange for a goodly sum, he also started production on a video (which was not completed) in which he harshly denounced Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s political rival and the man who was accused of fomenting the failed coup.

Oil for gold

And here’s where the other affair threatening to complicate things for Erdogan comes in.

American media outlets reported last week that Iranian multimillionaire Reza Zarrab, who was arrested in 2016 and questioned by the FBI about his part in an “oil-for-gold” deal, allegedly concocted to get around U.S. sanctions on Iran. Reports claimed he said that Flynn had been offered $15 million to secure Gulen's transfer from the U.S. to Turkey. The deal was to have included the release of Zarrab.

FILE PHOTO: Reza Zarrab surrounded by journalists as he arrives at a police center in Istanbul on December 17, 2013
OZAN KOSE/AFP

Zarrab already confessed to giving bribes in the range of $45 to $50 million to the former Turkish economy minister, Mehmet Zafer Caglayan, so the latter would see to it that Turkey could buy oil from Iran in exchange for direct payment in gold. This confession is a ticking time bomb. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gulen’s abduction was discussed at a meeting between Flynn and the Turkish energy minister, Berat Albayrak, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law.

Turkey has categorically denied these accusations, but that’s not the end of the story. It seems that Zarrab and his pricey attorneys, including former New York mayor and Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general in the President George W. Bush administration, decided to go for a plea bargain. In exchange for a reduced penalty for Zarrab, they will tell Flynn’s part in the Turkey affair and thus assist the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

That’s a deal Erdogan should worry about. Because if Zarrab tells everything he knows, it won't be only the Turkish economy minister and the head of the of Turkey’s Aktif Bank who will become wanted men. Erdogan’s family – and perhaps he himself – might even face charges in the U.S.

In this courtroom sketch, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, center, testifies before Judge Richard Berman, right, that he helped Iran evade U.S. economic sanctions with help from Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in New York. At left is an interpreter.
 (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
Elizabeth Williams/AP

Erdogan has his own version of that ancient Israeli saying, “There will be nothing because there was nothing.” According to reports from Turkey, Erdogan told his party activists last week at a meeting in Ankara that “It doesn’t matter what comes out of this trial [of Zarrab] – Turkey did nothing bad. We have never broken the sanctions on Iran, and we never promised the United States that we would not break them. The United States is not the only country in the world, Turkey has commercial ties with Iran.”

In contrast, the Turkish opposition leader and head of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said in a speech to his parliamentary representatives a few days earlier that he was in possession of documents indicating that the president and his family had moved some $15 million to an off-shore tax haven between December 2011 and January 2012.

Erdogan and his family quickly sued Kilicdaroglu for libel for the amount of $380,000, claiming that the opposition leader had “caused hatred for the president and his family.”

It’s too soon to tell how Erdogan will extricate himself from the web of investigations being woven around his government, especially from the United States. But like a certain neighboring country, Erdogan can always declare new elections to strengthen his popularity and provide more proof that he is irreplaceable.