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U.S. says Turkish gold trader facing Iran trial invoked Erdogan ties

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A wealthy Turkish gold trader charged in the United States with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran sought support from and invoked the name of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to advance his business, U.S. prosecutors said.

The allegations against the trader, Reza Zarrab, had been detailed in a Monday federal court filing in Manhattan, but the Turkish lira fell more than 1 percent against the U.S. dollar after Bloomberg News reported the filing on Friday.

Erdogan has not been accused of wrongdoing, but the case has complicated the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a crucial Middle East ally.

Benjamin Brafman, a lawyer for Zarrab, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Turkish government officials could not immediately be reached.

Prosecutors accused the Iranian-born Zarrab and co-conspirators of handling hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015, in a scheme to evade U.S. actions.

Nine people have been criminally charged, but only Zarrab and a banker from Turkey’s Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, are in U.S. custody.

A trial is scheduled for Nov. 27.

But in a filing late Friday, Atilla’s lawyers requested a delay to January 2018, citing the amount of work still be done, “much of it” in Turkey, and the difficulty of trial preparation with Atilla housed in a Manhattan jail.

In Monday’s filing, prosecutors said “the government anticipates that the evidence introduced at trial will show that Turkish government and banking officials were integral to the sanctions evasion scheme.”

The filing detailed recorded phone conversations and documents that according to prosecutors suggest Zarrab was looking out for Erdogan’s interests.

It said one call occurred on April 16, 2013, when Zarrab spoke with another defendant about his efforts to buy a bank to establish a conduit for Iranian transactions.

Prosecutors said Zarrab and Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, had spoken four days earlier at a wedding.

“I explained it that day at the wedding,” Zarrab told the co-defendant, according to prosecutors. “I will go back and will say, Mr. Prime Minister, if you approve, give me a license, I will go though BDDK (the Turkish bank regulator) even if I bought the bank anyway.”

In a separate filing, Atilla’s lawyers have said Zarrab has “essentially not participated” in the case and that Atilla might be the only defendant appearing at trial.

This raised speculation that Zarrab might be preparing a guilty plea or to cooperate, or that charges against him may change.

The case is U.S. v. Zarrab et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-cr-00867.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler and Matthew Lewis