TEHRAN, Iran — Turkish-Iranian business tycoon Reza Zarrab’s testimony in a US court has received extensive coverage in Iranian media; however, this coverage doesn’t stem from his real charge in the United States, which is bypassing the sanctions against Tehran, but rather because he has been linked to a controversial billionaire tycoon who is now in jail in Iran: Babak Zanjani.
Prior to reaching a deal over its nuclear program in 2015, Iran and its oil industry were under heavy sanctions. Sanctions were circumvented through middlemen who arranged oil exports and received the money instead of the government in Tehran. Zanjani was one of the most important middlemen; he made a lot of money and lived luxuriously. One report even said he was the 65th richest man on earth, with an estimated wealth of $13.5 billion. However, Iran’s Oil Ministry filed a lawsuit against him for not paying back money owed to the ministry from oil exports, and Zanjani was jailed and sentenced to death.
Amir Abbas Soltani, a former Iranian lawmaker and a former member of the parliamentary committee tasked with pursuing the Zanjani case, said Zarrab is “the black box” of Zanjani’s case.
Zarrab, according to news reporting about his testimony, explained his connection to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) and Zarrab's meeting with the chairman of the Central Bank of Iran under Ahmadinejad.
Soltani, asked about Zarrab’s testimony about his ties inside Iran and with the Ahmadinejad government, said, “I’m not aware of the details of his meeting with Ahmadinejad, but he had meetings with the financial team of the previous government [Ahmadinejad's] and this is not deniable.”
Soltani added, “What was discussed is unknown but he had meetings with the head of the Central Bank and the economy minister as well as Ahmadinejad.”
Noting that Zarrab had mostly operated out of Turkey, the former Iranian member of parliament said, “Zarrab was the manager of all of Zanjani's financial plans.”
Soltani said, “In fact, Reza Zarrab is the black box of Babak Zanjani,” adding, “Zarrab managed many of Zanjani's companies and his communications.”
Soltani continued, “The support Turkey has [shown] for Zarrab and the assets of Zanjani in Turkey is proof that they had close relationships and the director of Zanjani’s plan was Zarrab.”
The former legislator said, “These guys form a mafia group with Zanjani as the head of it, and Zanjani standing behind [the scenes] directing everything, and they have a lot of people in Iran and had an organized group.”
Soltani also said, “Most of Zanjani’s assets in Turkey are in the name of Zarrab.”
Asked about Zarrab’s family, Soltani said: “Zarrab’s father is a merchant and lives in Iran and he asked for a meeting with me a few times, but I didn’t agree to it. They sought to tell me that Zarrab is innocent and has no ties to the Zanjani case. “
According to the Turkish paper Hurriyet, Zarrab’s father, Hossein, was among a team of people that Ahmadinejad assembled after he was elected president in 2005 to help work around US sanctions.
Furthermore, a report says that in a ceremony in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz in 2007, Hossein Zarrab gave Ahmadinejad a proposal for the establishment of the SFK steel company, a proposal accepted by the president right away and at the end of the ceremony.
What does Zanjani say about Zarrab?
On Nov. 23, 2015, in an Iranian court session, the judge addressed Zanjani, saying: “You deposited 445 million euros [in an account belonging] to the company of Safir Altin belonging to Zarrab, and he received 12 million euros for his service.”
Zanjani responded by saying, “The Central Bank’s money was in the Parsian and Sarmayeh banks. These banks had to deposit the money into Turkey’s Halkbank, [but prior to depositing the money] the Turkish bank’s fee and [the fees of the involved Iranian banks] had been deducted [from the original amount of money]. In fact, Zarrab didn’t receive any fee; however, when the money was deposited into his account, 12 million euros had already been deducted for the banking fees.”
Moreover, Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Moseni Ejei said on April 10, 2016: “In Zanjani’s case, various names have been mentioned including Zarrab. … [Zarrab’s] name has been brought up by Zanjani and other defendants." The spokesman said no lawsuit has been filed against Zarrab.
Iranian lawmaker: We are suspicious of the US court
Mohammad-Ali Pourmokhtar, an Iranian lawmaker and a former member of the special legal committee of the parliament, told Al-Monitor, “In the meetings we had with Zanjani, he never mentioned Zarrab. However, eight months or nine months after Zanjani’s arrest, Zarrab’s case was brought up.” The legislator added, “It is not clear how serious Zarrab’s violations of the law are in Iran.”
Pour Mokhtar added, “However, if Zanjani himself says that his assets were in Zarrab's hands and that they were associates, then we should pursue him legally.”
Downplaying Zarrab’s claim about his ties with Ahmadinejad, Pour-Mokhtar said: “There are people who meet once and consider that as a relationship. “
He also slammed the United States, saying “What the US is doing with Zarrab is suspicious; they don’t inform the public correctly.”
Zarrab was arrested during a trip to the United States on March 19, 2016.