Recent contradictory statements by Turkish officials concerning the fate of a Libyan aircraft suspected of smuggling Iranian cash in 2014 have reignited debate in the Turkish parliament over whether the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has helped Iran evade sanctions.
The dispute dates to December 12, 2014, when Mahmut Tanal, a lawmaker from Turkey’s pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), made headlines after informing Turkish authorities that a Buraq Air plane taking off from Iran’s Ahwaz International Airport was going to land in Ankara with four tons of U.S. banknotes. The plane’s manifest reported that its cargo consisted of kiwi, but Turkey’s then-Minister of Customs and Trade Nurettin Canikli stated that the only Buraq Air flight that arrived in Turkey around that time was carrying 19 tons of cigarettes.
On December 18, 2014, and January 27, 2015, Tanal filed parliamentary questions to Canikli and Transportation Minister Lutfi Elvan. The lawmaker asked Canikli to provide the manifest, flight path, and cargo of the Buraq Air flight. Tanal asked Elvan to provide the same information for all Iranian-chartered flights to Turkey since the AKP came to power in 2002. Although Elvan chose not to answer the question, Canikli responded the next month that x-ray scans of the cargo revealed only cigarettes.
The controversy resurfaced last month following a hearing at the Turkish Parliament’s Human Rights Commission, when Tanal inquired about the problem of cigarette smuggling from Iran to Turkey. Erhan Gulveren, the deputy governor of Turkey’s General Directorate of Security, claimed that there were no recently recorded cases of trafficking cigarettes via planes. This clashed with Canikli’s prior statement, prompting the CHP lawmaker to launch another inquiry into a potential government cover-up of Iran’s illicit finance flows.
Earlier this month, Tanal filed two parliamentary questions asking the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure to identify the cargo of the December 2014 Buraq Air flight, which Turkish authorities reportedly impounded in Istanbul. Tanal has not yet received a response.
Given the Turkish government’s near-total control over the Turkish media, investigative journalists will not likely be allowed to explore the issue further, let alone find a medium to publish their findings. Turkey’s leading platform for independent journalism reported last week that Tanal’s inquiry about the “plane full of U.S. dollars” has not been covered in any mainstream media outlet.
Since the country’s June 2018 elections, Erdogan’s government has failed to respond to more than half of the 13,488 parliamentary questions submitted. Tanal’s renewed inquiry will likely meet the same fate. The challenge of illicit finance continues to grow in Turkey, which has become a permissive jurisdiction for a number of rogue actors in addition to Iran.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.