By Emil Danielyan
Armenia said on Saturday that U.S. sanctions against an Armenian chemical firm accused of helping Iran build weapons of mass destruction will not spoil its relations with the United States.
Foreign Minster Vartan Oskanian said while the sanctions could damage Armenia’s image in the U.S., they will not have a negative impact on Yerevan’s ties with Washington. He confirmed that the Americans had warned Armenia that the Lizin company’s exports could also be used for military purposes, but said the Armenian government had no authority to block commercial deals.
The company’s main shareholder and chairman, meanwhile, claimed that it has never sold “banned technology and equipment” to Iran. Ashot Ohanian, who owns 43 percent of its shares, also said in a statement late on Friday that the younger brother of Armenia’s two former prime ministers, Armen Sarkisian, has never had any connection to Lizin.
Sarkisian, who different informed sources say won control of the factory in 1997 and sold it 1999, issued a similar denial in an interview with RFE/RL on Friday. He said nor has any other member of the influential Sarkisian family ever ran or owned the factory located in the industrial town of Charentsavan 30 kilometers north of Yerevan.
Lizin and Armen Sarkisian feature in the list of 12 Armenian, Chinese and Moldovan entities subjected to sanctions for allegedly transferring sensitive equipment or technology to Iran. Their names appeared in the U.S. Federal Register on Thursday.
According to Oskanian, the U.S. government warned last year that “products” sold by Lizin could have “dual” -- civilian and military -- use. But he said the deal went ahead because such claims “can always be debated” and because Lizin is not controlled by the state.
“They [Lizin owners] were warned at the time they should not press ahead with the deal because those products have dual use and should therefore not be sold to Iran,” Oskanian explained. “But Lizin is a private firm which is free to make deals. We, as a state, can only warn them; we can not block their deals.”
Oskanian appeared to refer to last year’s sale of Lizin’s equipment to a trading company registered in the United Arab Emirates -- the apparent reason why the company is facing U.S. sanctions. According to government data, Lizin was paid almost $102,000 for what its owners claim were obsolete facilities. But other sources familiar with the Charentsavan factory say there were quite sophisticated and even “unique.”
The company’s principal product was lysine, an amino acid used as an additive to animal fodder. Experts say it can also be used to produce proteins that enhance blood resistance to nuclear radiation.
Lysine is a natural product produced from beet, molasses, maize extract or fodder yeast through a microbiological synthesis involving special bacteria. Scientists believe that the equipment used in the production process can also generate other biological reactions and substances.
It is not clear whether Lizin’s production facilities fall under multilateral export control lists that seek to curb exports of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
“I am sure that that firm had no intention to contribute to weapons programs of another state,” Oskanian stressed, adding that Armenia remains committed to countering the worldwide spread of weapons of mass destruction.
“I don’t think that this affair will have any major impact on U.S.-Armenian relations,” he said. “I want to reaffirm our bilateral and multilateral obligations related to that sphere…The only negative side of this is that Armenia’s name is mentioned in connection with the blacklisting of that firm.”
President Robert Kocharian likewise distanced himself from the controversial deal on Friday, while pledging to address U.S. concerns.
The U.S. State Department has made it clear that the Armenian government will not be affected by the sanctions. Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated on Thursday that official Yerevan has been “helpful” in U.S. non-proliferation efforts despite the embarrassing affair.
Oskanian also said that the two-year U.S. sanctions will not affect the close ties between Armenia and Iran. “We see no reason to introduce any changes into our policy [toward Iran], and we have no problem with the United States in that regard,” he said. “We and the U.S. have a full mutual understanding regarding the Armenian-Iranian relations.”
U.S. ambassador to Yerevan, John Ordway, told RFE/RL earlier this month that Washington “has nothing against” those relations but expects Armenia’s cooperation against Iran’s “desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction and its support for terrorism.” Some analysts and government officials interpreted the remarks as a signal that Yerevan should exercise greater caution toward Tehran, which President George W. Bush recently accused of being part of a global “axis of evil.”
Iran has denied the latest U.S. allegations. The Armenpress news agency quoted the Iranian embassy in Yerevan as saying that “not a single Iranian-Armenian venture” has engaged in the transfer of banned equipment or technology.
Lizin’s second biggest shareholder is an Iranian citizen of Armenian origin, Varuzhan Andreasian.