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A day after Donald Trump designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organisation, reports are reemerging of the Trump Organization's alleged participation in a scheme that likely helped the IRGC launder money to fund its interests abroad.
The US government made the unprecedented move to blacklist another country’s military because, Mr Trump said, the IRGC “actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft”.
The designation imposes sanctions including freezing assets the IRGC may have in US jurisdictions and a ban on Americans doing business with the organisation.
But according to a 2017 report by the New Yorker, the Trump Organization signed contracts in 2012 with developers to build a skyscraper in Azerbaijan that appeared “to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard”.
The family the Trumps partnered with on the Trump Tower Baku project were the Mammadovs, whose billionaire patriarch Ziya Mammadov was the then-Azerbaijani transport minister, on a reported salary of little over £9,000.
According to Transparency International, Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, and, according to one US diplomat – in comments made public by WikiLeaks eight years ago – Mr Mammadov was “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan”.
In 2008, Mr Mammadov awarded a series of multimillion-pound contracts to Azarpassillo, an Iranian construction firm allegedly controlled by the IRGC as part of a larger scheme to export money from Iran in order to fund terror and other activities abroad.
The company was run by the Darvishi family, at least three members of whom were associated of the IRGC, the New Yorker reported. Two brothers in the family, Kamal and Keyumars, made frequent visits to Azerbaijan and reportedly developed a close relationship with the Mammadovs.
The Trump Tower Baku project carried some classic hallmarks of a money-laundering operation, including firms being paid in cash, some of which was transferred in duffel bags.
“I got a hundred and eighty thousand dollars one time, which I fit into my laptop bag, and two hundred thousand dollars another time,” said Frank McDonald, who performed work on the building’s interior.
Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten said the company learned in 2015 about the “possibility” the Mammadovs had ties to the IRGC, which was under US sanctions, but did not pull out of the deal until December 2016 as there was “no rush” because the project had “stalled”.
He also said the Trump Organization had binding contracts with the Mammadovs that they could not just abandon, something sanctions experts rubbished.
“You can’t violate sanctions just because you have a contract with someone,” said Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at George Washington University Law School.
There is no evidence Mr Trump or any Trump Organization officials acted illegally in the deal. Mr Trump, in fact, was reportedly only lightly involved in the project, which was spearheaded by his oldest daughter, Ivanka.
Baku XXI Century, the firm owned by the Mammadovs, has denied involvement in corruption. Azarpasillo and the Trump Organization have been contacted for comment.