Wikileaks: Threatened with sanctions Armenia assures U.S. over 2003 arms transfer to Iran

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Sunday November 28, 2010

John Negroponte.

Washington - On Christmas Eve 2008 as the Bush Administration was getting ready to leave office, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte dispatched a letter that threatened sanctions against Armenia over a sale of light weapons cache to Iran five years earlier, according to a secret State Department diplomatic cable first published by The Guardian and made available by Wikileaks.

According to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan three weeks later, Armenian leaders pledged to investigate the matter and work to prevent such transfers in the future.

A huge trove of secrets

The documents released are part of a trove of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables that Wikileaks is planning to release. U.S. condemned the release of secret cables and refused to comment on any of them. No immediate reaction from Armenian officials was available.

As of December 6 close to 1,000 documents classified secret or confidential were released, including several dealing with Armenia, and more with neighboring Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

In another cable dated February 22, 2010, U.S. officials raised concerns about arms deals between Turkish firms and Iran, including some weapons that may have been previously transferred to Turkey by U.S. In yet another, dating from one year ago, Israeli officials charged Turkey with directly facilitating Iran's nuclear program.

According to UK-based Al Hayat newspaper, another U.S. cable that is yet to be released alleges Turkey supported Al Qaeda in Iraq and U.S. in turn backed Kurdish rebels that it formally considers terrorists.

Arms transfer comes to light 

In Armenia's case, U.S. officials learned that a number of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and machine guns recovered from Iraqi insurgents from 2006 to 2008 were Bulgarian-produced arms that an Armenian front entity acting on behest of Iran purchased in early 2003.

According to the December 24, 2008 cable from the State Department to U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, the issue was raised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Armenia's President Serge Sargsyan when two met during the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2008 in New York.

In that meeting Sargsyan denied any transfer of weapons occurred. But later, in January 14, 2009 meeting with Ambassador Donald Mahley, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for threat reduction, the Armenian president claimed he misunderstood that U.S. was charging Armenia with a transfer of missiles (rockets). In fact, Negroponte's December letter referenced "rockets and machine guns."

The letter also issued an ultimatum to Armenia to sign a memorandum of understanding that would provide U.S. virtual supervision of its trade links with Iran or risk U.S. sanctions.

Armenia assures U.S.

Meeting with Armenia's President Sargsyan and National Security Service director Gorik Hakobyan on January 14, U.S. officials found Armenians eager to address U.S. concerns, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch reported in a subsequent cable.

U.S. officials also made clear that even though the arms transfer to Iran triggered U.S. sanctions law - and Congress was already notified of the matter - the Administration sought to resolve the matter cooperatively and would waive sanctions if it gained "full confidence" in Armenia's readiness to cooperate. The NSS director pledged to investigate the arms transfer and share its conclusions.

Sargsyan for his part assured U.S. officials that Armenia "did not have and had no interest in cooperating with Iran on weapons sales." Sargsyan agreed to consider the measures demanded by the U.S., while also pointing to the long track record of Armenia's cooperation with U.S. on non-proliferation and other security issues.

In fact, in a letter dated the day of the meeting, January 14, President Bush thanked Armenia for its Iraq role. From 2005 to 2008 Armenian servicemen were part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. They were deployed near the border with Iran and were targeted by insurgent attacks.

Months after these U.S.-Armenia exchanges, on March 31, 2009 House Select Intelligence Committee heard a closed-door "Briefing on Armenia." While agenda of that meeting was not made public, considering the Committee's focus on Iran and Iraq, the issue of the Iran arms transfer was likely on the agenda.

A source familiar with the issue told The Armenian Reporter at the time that U.S. and Armenian governments were working cooperatively on the issue that was the focus of the briefing.

And since no U.S. sanctions were eventually introduced the issue appears to have been resolved amicably in the end.

This was not the first time U.S. expressed serious concern over Iran-Armenia transactions.

In 2002 a defunct Armenian factory called Lizin together with businessman Armen Sargsyan (brother of late Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan) were sanctioned after Lizin's Soviet-era production facilities sold to Iran were deemed to be dual-use technology that could serve military purposes.

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The Cafesjian Foundation has taken a difficult decision to close The Armenian Reporter. We regret that we are forced to take this decision after more than eight years of publishing. We thank our readers and all individuals who have contributed to the Reporter. Kathleen Cafesjian Baradaran Chair, Cafesjian Family Foundation

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