Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will make a two-day official visit to Tehran on January 28 to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Erdoğan is expected to sign a strategic cooperation agreement, Today's Zaman reported.
While Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was in Tehran in November 2013 and announced that Erdoğan would soon follow, the timing of the visit is somewhat awkward. It comes amidst a corruption scandal linking high-level Turkish officials and businessmen to the massive "gas-for-gold" sanctions-busting scheme that yielded neighboring Iran some $13 billion in Turkish gold between 2012 and 2013.
Among the figures under fire is Süleyman Aslan, the head of state-owned Halkbank, which was key to executing gas-for-gold. Authorities reportedly discovered $4.5 million "hidden in shoe boxes in the library of Aslan's house," Hurriyet Daily News reported. Aslan stated the money was intended for charity.
Several Iranians were also ensnared in the corruption probe. Reza Zerrab, an Iranian-Azeri businessman, was accused of "irregular money transactions, mostly from Iran, totaling some 87 billion euros," Today's Zaman reported. Zerrab "allegedly transferred gold to Iran in exchange for money in 2012 with the help of his relations with a number of top politicians," another report stated. Other stories (here and here) alleged that Turkey's economy minister accepted bribes from Zerrab. A new report suggests he was involved in the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in 2011.
Yet another Iranian figure from the probe was Mehdi Shams, a former Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) executive, who purchased the Turkey-based Onur Air in a reported $250 million deal. In a scheme designed to skirt sanctions on aircraft parts, Shams transferred five Onur airbus passenger carriers to Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani's Qaeshm Air in Iran.
Zanjani, who chairs the Sorinet Group, a holding company that includes a large cosmetics company in Turkey, was sanctioned by the US and EU for helping Iran evade sanctions. In late December 2013, Iranian authorities arrested Zanjani, accusing him of failing to return $2 billion to the regime. Why Ankara allowed him to operate a business in Turkey is still unclear. He had been clearly identified in Iran's sanctions-busting schemes.
Rather than distancing himself from these troubles with Iran, Erdoğan appears to be doubling down. The visit is even more curious in light of the fact that Ankara officially opposes Iran's illicit nuclear program and is effectively Iran's sworn enemy when it comes to the Syrian civil war.
To be sure, Erdoğan may be trying to keep the peace with a tough neighbor. But with ties between Iran and the West now thawing as a result of the recently implemented Joint Plan of Action (JPA) on January 20, his trip could be an acknowledgement that Iran's regional clout is growing, and that its nuclear program looks unstoppable.
The U.S. Treasury warned Turkey today that Iran "is not open for business." However, countries are undeniably lining up to do business with Tehran. With Turkish officials openly acknowledging new economic benefits to reap as a result of sanctions relief from the JPA, Erdoğan's visit may signal that Turkey has opted to swim with the current.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.