David S. Cohen, a former deputy C.I.A. director, is U.S. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s leading choice to head the spy agency, The New York Times said on Dec. 2, basing its report on multiple people familiar with the process.
Cohen is also a former top Treasury official who oversaw the department’s financial sanctions against Russia, Iran and terrorist organizations.
Cohen had previously testified at a trial against executives of the Turkish state-run Halkbank.
Halkbank is accused of being involved in a gold-for-oil scheme and transferring $20 billion of restricted Iranian funds through the intermediaries of several senior ministers in the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party.
Cohen told the U.S. court in December of 2017 that he held meetings with Halkbank executives in Washington and Turkey on many occassions between 2011 and 2014 and expressed concern about Iran’s attempts to circumvent sanctions. Each time, he said, the executives told him they were following the rules.
Testifying for the U.S. government, Cohen said that that Halkbank officials repeatedly reassured them their gold-trader clients, including Reza Zarrab, were in compliance with U.S. sanctions against Iran.
"They assured us repeatedly they had robust compliance programs in place and made efforts to know who their customers were," Cohen said.
During his testimony, Cohen read a letter he sent in 2012 to Süleyman Aslan, Halkbank's then-general manager.
“Recent press reports quote Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan as stating that Turkey is exporting billions of dollars’ worth of gold to the government of Iran in order to pay for Turkey’s imports of oil from Iran,” Cohen wrote in the letter.
“In particular, Deputy Prime Minister Babacan is reported to have said ‘When Turkey buys Iranian oil, we pay for it in Turkish Lira. However, it is not possible for Iran to take that money as dollars into its own country due to international sanctions. Therefore, when Iran cannot take this money back as currency, they withdraw Turkish Lira and buy gold from our market.’”
Cohen told Aslan that the U.S. Treasury Department had been “troubled” by Babacan’s announcements, and “concerned” that Halkbank may be facilitating these sales.
Multiple Halkbank officials, including Aslan, were later indicted for sanctions violations.
However, former Halkbank manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla was the only one arrested. He was sentenced to 32 months in jail in 2018.
After returning to Turkey, Atilla was selected to become the CEO of the Istanbul stock exchange.