Best known for laundering billions of dollars for Iran, notorious gold smuggler Reza Zarrab’s ties to Russia received only passing mention when he was prosecuted in the U.S. in 2016.
That was a huge oversight.
A new investigation by OCCRP and Courthouse News Service shows that Russia was central to Zarrab’s money network even before he began working for Iran. The lucrative business is evident in thousands of bank transfer records obtained by OCCRP and has been described in interviews by a Zarrab insider who says he smuggled millions of dollars to Russia.
Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York declined comment on this investigation.
Zarrab, while still in his early 20s, was the co-owner of Bella Investments Company LLC, a Dubai-based “investment company” that secretly handled around $1.25 billion in suspicious wire transactions involving Russian and offshore entities. Several transactions were tied to the massive tax fraud exposed by the late Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
Bella Investments also received payments from offshore companies that have been linked to slave labor in Azerbaijan and petroleum illegally shipped to President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
Yet Bella Investments was scarcely mentioned when the U.S. prosecuted Zarrab and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a senior executive at Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, which facilitated Zarrab’s criminal scheme.
Investigators apparently knew about the company. Court papers show that when U.S. authorities seized Zarrab’s electronic devices in 2016, Bella Investments was used as a keyword search term. The FBI also asked the U.S. Treasury to search its records for Bella Investments a month after Zarrab’s arrest.
Bella Investments was also on a list of companies and people that was shown to prospective jurors who were told their names might come up in Atilla’s trial. It never did.
Under a new name and managed by Zarrab’s uncle and cousin, Bella Investments was still actively registered in Dubai two and a half years after Zarrab’s guilty plea in a U.S. district court. Three other companies bearing similar names, meanwhile, have been established by Zarrab’s relatives in Turkey, North Macedonia and Italy, showing the family’s money network extends into Europe.
Bella Investments' continued presence in Dubai highlights the Zarrab family’s ability to exploit the United Arab Emirates’ lax regulatory framework to move hundreds of millions of dollars — seemingly with few questions asked.
The wire transfer activity also involves Standard Chartered, the British multinational bank that U.S. officials labelled a “victim bank” and unwitting accomplice in Zarrab’s schemes. Documents show Bella Investments pushed millions in suspicious payments through an account at the British banking giant’s UAE branch.
A lot of it was suspicious money flowing from Russia.
The ‘Old System’
In 2008, Russia badly needed cash. Its central bank recorded net capital outflows of nearly $133.6 billion that year as a weak economy, falling oil prices and ruble depreciation prompted unprecedented flight of cash from the country.
Much of that money was held by legitimate investors seeking more stable markets, but some ended up in the accounts of a Dubai-based company run by Zarrab, an obscure 25-year-old Turkish-Iranian money exchanger, and his partner, Ahmed Ali Hassan Taher, the Emirati owner of Dubai’s Al Azhar Money Exchange.
Companies controlled by Zarrab in Turkey would later pump tens of millions of dollars through Al Azhar, banking data obtained by OCCRP show. Al Azhar’s website no longer works, but an archived page from 2011 lists several Iranian banks, including Bank Mellat, which was sanctioned by the U.S. at the time. Unlike his former partner, Taher has not been charged or sanctioned by the U.S. Taher could not be reached for comment.