Iran Targets Turkey Gold Trader Over Oil Billions, Lawmaker Says

An Iranian investigation into $2.7 billion of missing oil funds has concluded that Turkey-based gold trader Riza Sarraf may know the whereabouts of the money, a lawmaker involved in the probe said.

Sarraf, who was detained in Istanbul on separate corruption charges last year and released in February, helped jailed Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani transfer the oil revenues out of Iran, said legislator Amir Abbas Soltani, a member of the investigative committee set up last year to find the money.

Sarraf “didn’t just have one hand in this, he had all his hands tied up in what happened,” Soltani said in an interview in Tehran on Oct. 7. Sarraf was “definitely” involved in efforts by Zanjani to deposit the money in investments and assets outside Iran, Soltani said, citing information in his possession.

A lawyer for Sarraf in Istanbul has denied any partnership between her client and Zanjani. “It’s totally nonsense,” attorney Seyda Yildirim said by phone Aug. 25. “All Iran’s parliament can come and investigate. There’s nothing in common.” Yildirim didn’t respond yesterday to two calls seeking additional comment.

With Iran isolated from the global banking system and its oil exports slashed by almost half under sanctions, investigators including Soltani say middlemen such as Sarraf and Zanjani reaped billions of dollars by re-routing goods, money and gold through Turkey using loopholes and a network of informal contacts and channels.

Rouhani Campaign

The lawmakers’ probe comes after President Hassan Rouhani pledged to crack down on corruption, including the prosecution of officials in the previous administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In September, Ahmadinejad’s first vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, was convicted and sentenced to jail and a fine. While the charges haven’t been made public, Iranian state media reported in March that Rahimi was on trial for corruption.

Zanjani, who previously worked as an informal oil dealer at the oil ministry, has been accused by Iranian government ministers of embezzling the $2.7 billion. Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said in an interview on state television on Aug. 11 that Zanjani used the Tajikistan branch of his own bank, First Islamic Investment Bank, to funnel the money out of Iran.

A request to Iran’s Ministry of Justice seeking contact information for Zanjani’s lawyers, and e-mails sent to an address linked to a Facebook page in his name, weren’t answered. The Iranian Bar Association said last month it didn’t have information about Zanjani’s legal representatives.

Turkey Ministers

Sarraf, an Iranian national who took Turkish citizenship in 2007, was released from a Turkish prison in February after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government dismissed and replaced prosecutors investigating his case.

Sarraf had been accused of bribing at least three of Erdogan’s ministers and the head of a state-run bank to facilitate his gold trade. Erdogan said the investigation was part of an attempt to oust his government.

Soltani declined to elaborate on the evidence the committee has linking Sarraf and Zanjani, saying any public disclosure could harm the case against Sarraf.

He said he plans to visit Ankara for meetings with former associates of Zanjani in the hope they will shed more light on the alleged transfers. Iranian lawmakers have made a number of trips to Turkey since the investigation began.

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