A close ally of U.S. President Donald Trump is lobbying U.S. prosecutors to go easy on a man charged with helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions because he could be a potential bargaining chip in a political deal with Turkey.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump adviser, was hired recently to represent Reza Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian businessman accused of arranging hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of financial transactions for Iran's government and businesses in violation of U.S. sanctions from 2010 to 2015.
Zarrab, 33, who has pleaded not guilty, is a well-known personality in Turkey partly because he is married to Turkish pop star Ebru Gundes. He also was a central figure in a 2013 bribery scandal in Turkey, but criminal charges against him were dropped under the intervention of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan has accused the U.S. Justice Department of having "ulterior motives" for prosecuting Zarrab.
In court papers unsealed this week in the Iran sanctions case, Giuliani said he was hired "principally...to determine whether this case can be resolved as part of some agreement between the United States and Turkey that will promote the national security interests of the United States and redound to the benefit of Mr. Zarrab."
Giuliani said he and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who Zarrab also hired to represent him, met recently with Erdogan as well as U.S. officials about potentially settling the case on a "state-to-state basis."
"Senior officials in both the U.S. government and the Turkish government remain receptive to pursuing the possibility of an agreement that could promote the security of the United States and resolve the issues in this case," their affadavit to the court dated April 14 says.
"Turkey is situated in a part of the world strategically critical to the United States," Giuliani said, while "none of the transactions in which Mr. Zarrab is alleged to have participated involved weapons or nuclear technology, or any other contraband, but rather involved consumer goods."
Giuliani said further meetings or conversations with senior officials of the governments of the United States and Turkey are anticipated.
At a court hearing this month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Lockard expressed concern that the defense lawyers' efforts were an attempt to make a political end-run around a matter for the courts.
But Giuliani, whose law firm is a registered agent of Turkey, said the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is "entirely lawful and not at all unprecedented."
Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan who originally brought the landmark sanctions case against Zarrab and was fired by Trump last month, expressed concerns about the possibility of a political deal to settle the case.
"One just hopes that the rule of law, and its independent enforcement, still matters in the United States and at the Department of Justice," Bharara said in a tweet.
With reporting by AP and Reuters