Who is Reza Zarrab?
Born in Tehran in 1983, the Turkish-Iranian businessman was one of the 21st century’s most prolific money launderers before his 2016 arrest by U.S. authorities while en route to a Florida vacation.
Zarrab began doing business in Turkey around 2008, shortly after obtaining citizenship through a foreign investment program. But the true nature of his dealings there were largely shrouded in mystery until a 2013 bribery scandal exposed his apparent ties to the country’s government.
The most significant client of Zarrab’s “cash transfer” business was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which he helped violate U.S. and U.N. sanctions designed to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions.
But OCCRP uncovered that Zarrab’s company moved money for Russian clients as well, despite his testimony to the contrary in a U.S. court. Some of his transactions were tied to the massive tax fraud exposed by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after blowing the whistle on the affair.
How did Zarrab’s money laundering operation work?
Zarrab’s money-laundering empire used complex networks of shell companies — some owned or managed by family members or subordinates — as well as hand-couriered deliveries of gold and cash to move billions of dollars on behalf of Iran and other clients.
His illicit money transfer activities relied on correspondent banking services provided by some of the biggest financial institutions in the world, including Standard Chartered and Deutsche Bank.
Evidence analyzed by OCCRP as part of the FinCEN Files project, and detailed in a recent investigation, suggests that some major global banks may have wilfully ignored red flags relating to Zarrab’s operations.
Why is Zarrab still in the news?
The money launderer has become a major focus of U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years.
In sworn testimony, he has directly accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of complicity in the conspiracy and suggested that several high-ranking Turkish officials, including former Minister of the Economy Zafer Caglayan, had accepted multi-million-dollar bribes to look the other way.
Zarrab has cooperated with U.S. prosecutors in their investigation into the role of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank in the sanction-evasion scheme.
There were early warning signs of Zarrab’s nefarious activities and high-level connections — he’d previously been arrested by Turkish police during a bribery investigation in 2013.
Erdoğan denounced the probe as part of a judicial coup, and Zarrab walked free after just two months in custody.
What about the alleged interference from Trump?
According to media reports, Erdoğan made repeated pleas to U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to drop the Zarrab case — and Trump reportedly considered it.
Zarrab was at one point represented by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who lobbied for his release in exchange for Turkey freeing American pastor Andrew Brunson, who’d been detained on terrorism-related charges.
Trump wanted to explore this, but then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dismissed the idea in an Oval Office meeting in 2017.
Lev Parnas — a former associate of Giuliani who emerged as a key player in the Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry — told OCCRP in the first on-the-record account of that meeting that Giuliani was furious with the result.
Turkey also tried to get Trump to axe the case against Halkbank.
A U.S. Senate inquiry found that Trump met with Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s Treasury Minister and Erdoğan’s son-in-law, at the White House. In the April 2019 meeting, he reportedly said he would look into halting further enforcement.
Prosecutors allege that Albayrak was directly involved in the scandal, instructing officials to continue transferring funds between Iran and Zarrab’s accounts even after the money launderer’s arrest in 2013.
Why did Iran choose Zarrab to launder its money?
The exact nature of Zarrab’s relationship or communications with the Iranian regime is unknown. But one thing is clear — he was good at what he did.
According to a conservative estimate by U.S. prosecutors, Zarrab washed at least $20 billion in dirty cash for Iran between 2010 and 2015. The scheme ran for as long as eight years.
Longstanding ties to the regime maintained by his father, Iranian businessman Hossein Zarrab, couldn’t have hurt.
But he wasn’t the only one. OCCRP has revealed that Hatam Khatoun Nema, a Swedish-Iranian businessman, also laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese oil money on behalf of the Islamic Republic.
How is Zarrab perceived in Turkey?
Zarrab’s opulent lifestyle, complete with an office in Istanbul’s Trump Tower, earned him the nickname “The Turkish Gatsby” in the country’s tabloid press.
His celebrity rose when he married singer, actress, and TV personality Ebru Gündeş, a best-selling performer of Turkey’s popular Arab-style love songs and a former judge on the country’s iteration of singing competition The Voice.
Gündeş filed for divorce after Zarrab’s arrest in 2016. They were believed to have reconciled, but according to recent reports, the divorce is proceeding.
Where is Zarrab now?
It’s unclear, but he’s likely somewhere in the United States.
He was reportedly seen dining at an expensive Manhattan restaurant in September 2018. OCCRP has determined that a number of his companies remain active, possibly continuing to provide him with some form of income.
One thing’s for sure — he won’t be returning to Turkey anytime soon, at least not willingly.
His testimony about Erdoğan was reportedly met with fury from the Turkish president: The country seized Zarrab’s assets and declared him persona non grata.