Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Washington for a five-day trip geared around the White House’s two-day nuclear security summit on Thursday and Friday. The duration of his visit reveals the Turkish president’s desperate bid to repair his country’s relations with the West, strained over Ankara’s reckless Middle East policies and deteriorating human rights record. Looming over his efforts, however, is the headline-grabbing arrest of Turkey’s most controversial businessman in Florida last week.
On March 19, Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab was arrested in Miami and charged with fraud, corruption, and evading international sanctions against Iran’s illicit nuclear program. The arrest sent shockwaves through Turkey. Two years prior, Zarrab was at the center of Turkey’s biggest-ever corruption scandal and held on similar charges. Alongside the businessman, the probe implicated Erdogan’s cabinet and family. Erdogan’s ruling party responded by purging the police and prosecutors involved in the investigation. Within months, all cases were dropped and all suspects walked free.
On Monday, a federal judge in Miami is expected to transfer Zarrab to New York for the trial. The case could reveal new details about Zarrab’s dealings on behalf of the Iranian regime, which may also implicate the Turkish officials with whom he was previously accused of collaborating.
Erdogan, threatened by a hostile Russia, an inflamed Kurdish insurgency and periodic IS suicide attacks at home, is keen on improving Turkey’s tarnished image in the West. He will certainly attempt to use his speech at the Brookings Institution on Thursday to publicly defend his government. But the Zarrab case will not make his job any easier.
Having recently sealed a migrant deal with the EU in exchange for visa-free travel for Turks in Europe, Erdogan is adept at scoring favors from the West. But Erdogan may not be so lucky on this side of the Atlantic. Even if the White House were willing to turn a blind eye to the Zarrab affair, the U.S. justice system is independent, and prosecutors are expected to follow the evidence wherever it leads them.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu