By Emil Danielyan
The United States intends to impose sanctions on Armenian companies suspected of helping Iran acquire weapons of mass destruction, reports from Washington said on Wednesday.
However, the U.S. embassy in Armenia on Thursday cast doubt on their credibility, saying that it is not aware of any such plans.
Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed senior American official as saying that the administration of President George W. Bush has decided to impose sanctions on Chinese, Armenian and Moldovan companies under the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. The sanctions are imposed because of "weapons transactions with Iran" -- part of what Bush calls the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, said the official, adding that the U.S. Congress would be formally notified soon of the decision.
But an official in the U.S. embassy in Yerevan effectively denied the report, arguing that American diplomatic missions abroad are normally informed beforehand by Washington in such circumstances. “I find it very difficult to believe it because we have no such information,” he said.
Armenian officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The U.S. official cited by Reuters did not disclose the names or numbers of the companies affected nor the exact nature of their activities. The official said the entities to be sanctioned are engaged in activities prohibited by multilateral export control lists which seek to curb the transfer of longer-range missiles and prevent the spread of chemical and biological weapons. He said companies and individuals in Moldova and Armenia may be a "front" for Russian entities that have long engaged in arms trade with Iran.
Armenia used to be an important part of the Soviet military-industrial complex, supplying, in particular, electronics parts for missile systems and other sophisticated weapons. But most of the sector’s enterprises and research centers have been on the decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union which left them without orders. None of them has so far been accused by the U.S. government of aiding Iran’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programs.
Armenia and Iran have agreed recently to begin bilateral military cooperation, which they said will cement their close political ties and promote stability in the region. A joint memorandum of understanding was signed in Yerevan on March 4 by the defense ministers of the two neighboring states. It remained unclear, however, what concrete forms their planned military ties will take.
Armenia is seen as treading a delicate diplomatic line, seeking to maintain simultaneously good relations with Russia, Iran and the U.S.
Speaking to RFE/RL as recently as last week, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, said his country does not object to Armenia's close ties with Iran, but expects Yerevan's support in countering Tehran's “support for terrorism.” "We certainly look to Armenia for support in our efforts to deny Iran the means to acquire the weapons of mass destruction as well as to speak out against Iran's support for terrorism, which has a particularly insidious impact on the Middle East peace process," he said.
Ordway appeared to be the fist American government official to have publicly voiced reservations about Armenia's policy toward Iran.
The reported U.S. plans to penalize Chinese, Armenian and Moldovan firms come amid Iranian claims that Washington and Tehran have held secret talks on ways of normalizing their relations. The official IRNA news agency quoted an influential Iranian lawmaker as saying that “there have been some discussions with the Americans” recently.
The U.S. State Department rejected the claims as untrue.
Meanwhile, AFP reported Wednesday that U.S. and Iranian diplomats will meet this week in Paris as the United States, France and Russia brief Iran on work to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The three countries co-chair the so-called Minsk Group on Karabakh which operates under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"As a neighboring state bordering both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Iran has a legitimate interest in being informed on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process," said Eliza Koch, a State Department spokeswoman. But she stressed that the meeting “does not represent any change in US policy toward Iran.”