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Top Armenian Officials Decline Comment On 'Arms Supplies' To Iran Allegations

One leaked document suggests that top officials in George W. Bush's administration raised "deep concerns" with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and were unconvinced by his denial of "the arms re-export case," which dated back to 2003, when Sarkisian was
YEREVAN -- The Armenian President's Office and Foreign Ministry have declined to comment on reports that the United States accused Armenia of re-exporting weapons to neighboring Iran and threatened to impose sanctions on Yerevan two years ago, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

According to one of the thousands of leaked alleged State Department cables publicized by WikiLeaks, one document alleges that top officials in George W. Bush's administration raised "deep concerns" with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and were unconvinced by his denial of "the arms re-export case," which dated back to 2003 when Sarkisian was defense minister.

In a December 2008 secret letter sent through the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte allegedly pressed Sarkisian to take wide-ranging measures that would "ensure such transfers do not occur in the future."

"Notwithstanding the close relationship between our countries, neither the Administration nor the U.S. Congress can overlook this case," Negroponte wrote.

"By law, the transfer of these weapons requires us to consider whether there is a basis for the imposition of U.S. sanctions," he warned. "If sanctions are imposed, penalties could include the cutoff of U.S. assistance and certain export restrictions."

"To avoid such sanctions, it is essential that you present compelling evidence that your government is now in partnership with us to ensure such transfers do not occur in the future," Negroponte said.

That, he said, should take the form of a written pledge to tighten export controls and allow U.S. officials to carry out "unannounced" inspections of Armenian border checkpoints. Yerevan would also be required to "consult" with Washington before selling weapons or dual-use commodities to countries that are not members of the European Union or NATO.

Whether Sarkisian accepted these demands and signed a relevant agreement with the United States is unknown.

"I will refrain from commenting on secret documents of other countries," presidential press secretary Armen Arzumanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on November 29.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry also declined comment.

A spokesman for Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Eduard Sharmazanov, said Armenia's relations with Iran have always been "very transparent." "And if somebody makes statements [to the contrary,] then it's up to them to substantiate those statements," he told RFE/RL.

Giro Manoyan, a senior representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a major party that was in governing coalitions from 2003-09, questioned the credibility of the U.S. claims.

Manoyan said the fact Washington never applied the sanctions threatened by Negroponte means that "there was probably no such thing."

Manoyan, whose party is now in opposition to the Sarkisian administration, suggested that Washington might have simply sought either to prevent any such transfer of weaponry from Armenia to Iran, and/or the right to inspect Armenian border facilities at will.

The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, meanwhile, declined to comment on the content of the leaked document. The embassy reaffirmed the State Department's strong condemnation of this and other WikiLeaks documents. In a written statement, it also downplayed the significance of classified correspondence between Washington and U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.

"These cables are often preliminary and incomplete expressions of foreign policy, and they should not be seen as having standing on their own or as representing U.S. policy," the statement said.

A "background" note for U.S. diplomats in Yerevan that was attached to Negroponte's letter contends that Armenia "facilitated" Iran's purchase of rockets and machine guns in 2003. "In 2007, some of these weapons were recovered from two Shia militant attacks in which a United States soldier was killed and six others were injured in Iraq," it states without specifying the precise type and origin of the weapons.

The 2008 document adds that the State Department plans to send a team of officials to Yerevan who will present additional proof of the arms transfer and "make it unreasonable for Sarkisian to continue his denials." It says "high-ranking Armenian officials" were directly involved in the deal but does not name any of them.

Sarkisian then the defense minister, met at least four times with the Iranian ambassador to Yerevan between March 2002 and July 2003.

Defense and security are arguably the least advanced component of Armenia's close relationship with neighboring Iran, which has centered on economic cooperation and, in particular, joint energy projects. U.S. officials have occasionally indicated Washington's unease over Armenian-Iranian ties, warning that they might run counter to international sanctions imposed on Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.

Yerevan was unhappy May 2002 when the U.S. State Department blacklisted an Armenian businessman who had allegedly sold biochemical equipment to an Iranian-linked company registered in the United Arab Emirates. The equipment was dismantled from a Soviet-era Armenian factory that used to grow special bacteria for the production of lysine, an amino acid added to animal fodder. Scientists say the bacteria could also generate other biochemical substances.

The embarrassing affair prompted the Kocharian government to tighten export controls on its main border crossings. The United States had begun helping it prevent the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction even before the scandal.

In the past decade, Armenian border guard and customs services have been supplied with various U.S.-made equipment such as radio-communication systems, border sensors, metal detectors, cargo-truck scales, and X-ray units. The supplies are part of the U.S. government's Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance Program (EXBS) that has been implemented in dozens of countries.