WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Tuesday escalated pressure on Turkey by filing fraud and money laundering charges against the country’s second-largest bank, accusing it of helping Iran evade United States sanctions.
The charges against the state-owned institution, Halkbank, came as the administration sought ways to project that it was taking a tough line with Turkey after President Trump effectively signaled this month that the United States would not stand in the way of Turkey’s desire to send forces into northern Syria. Mr. Trump’s willingness to allow the military action has thrown the region into chaos and ignited an intense bipartisan backlash against him at home.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had repeatedly raised the Halkbank case with Mr. Trump over the last year, urging the United States not to take further action, saying that to do so would unfairly expose Turkey to severe financial risks. One of the bank’s top executives was convicted on similar charges last year, and the Justice Department has been reviewing since then whether to file further charges.
The charges were filed by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which has been investigating the bank’s role in what has been called the largest Iran sanctions violation in United States history, as billions of dollars’ worth of gold and cash were illegally transferred to Iran in exchange for oil and gas.
Justice Department officials said high-ranking government officials in Turkey “participated in and protected this scheme,” with some receiving bribes worth tens of millions of dollars and helping to hide the scheme from the scrutiny of regulators in the United States.
“This is one of the most serious Iran sanctions violations we have seen, and no business should profit from evading our laws or risking our national security,” said John C. Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security.
Lawyers and lobbyists representing the bank, including Brian D. Ballard, a friend of Mr. Trump’s and the vice chairman of his inauguration, have been attempting for more than a year to persuade the Trump administration not to file a case against the bank.
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