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Iranian narcotics and Levon Ter-Petrossian: what the Wikileaks cable actually said

Iranian narcotics and Levon Ter-Petrossian: what the Wikileaks cable actually said

Levon Ter-Petrossian (photo by Onnik Krikorian)

Has former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrossian been personally profiting from the Iranian narcotics trade?  This is the conclusion that some people are drawing from a Wikileaks release on the Norwegian news site Aftenposten. The cable can be viewed here, and the story has gotten circulation on Armenian web sites, including, whose editors wrote the following headline:

“WikiLeaks: former President Ter-Petrossian was personally profiting from narcotics trade to Iran.”

So what was actually in the cable?  Is there evidence that Ter-Petrossian is or was involved in the importation of illicit narcotics from Iran?  Does it say or imply that the UNODC (UN Office on Drugs and Crime) has tied Ter-Petrossian to the drug trade, as some in Armenia have inferred?

The cable was apparently written (or at least vetted) in September of 2008 by Anne Derse, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan.  And despite the headlines in Armenia, the subject of the cable is actually heroin shipments from Iran to Azerbaijan, a very serious social problem.  One passage sums up the alarming situation:

UNODC Baku reports that trans-shipment of heroin and other opiates from Iran through Azerbaijan has skyrocketed. Total heroin seizures by GOAJ security authorities increased from twenty kilos to over 250 kilos in 2007.

The Baku UNODC office had been open only 18 months when the cable was written, and established itself in Azerbaijan at the request of President Ilham Aliyev, who evidently is taking the Iranian heroin threat seriously.  (I’m glad to hear that.)  “GOAJ” is State Department-speak for “Government of Azerbaijan.”

It’s paragraph 9 of the secret cable that mentions the alleged Armenian connection.  The source for much of the information in the cable, and the Armenian allegation in particular, apparently is a “Baku Iran watcher” who perhaps is the same source who has supplied information on the Iranian-Azerbaijani relationship in other Wikileaks cables.

At any rate, the critical passage appears below:

[TEXT REMOVED BY AFTENPOSTEN ] observed that Armenia is “starved for hard currency,” and alleged that UNODC as well as Azerbaijani officials believe that senior Armenian political and government officials, including former President Tar-Petrossian, are personally profiting from this trade.

Now, take a good look at that section.  Does it say that the UNODC have concluded that Ter-Petrossian is involved?  No.  Does it say that Anne Derse or the US Department of State have concluded that such a connection exists?  No.  What is does say is that the US embassy’s local source alleged that the UNODC came to this conclusion.  And it adds that, according to this source, “Azerbaijani officials” charged that Ter-Petrossian is profiting from the Iranian drug trade.

It’s perplexing that such an allegation was repeated in a State Department dispatch without anyone at the embassy bothering to talk to the UNODC office in Baku for verification.  Or the UNODC headquarters in Vienna.  True, Derse never imagined that a disgruntled Army PfC would hand over a quarter of a million State Department dispatches to Julian Assange.  But I’m still surprised that neither she nor anyone at the embassy injected a note of skepticism prior to sending the message to Washington.

The “Armenian officials are profiting from [illicit activity X]” charge is an oft-used tactic from official Baku, and this one could have been checked out easily.  That’s what I did…

In mid-February, I contacted Ter-Petrossian’s office, and of course they denied the allegation.  But then I called the Baku UNODC office.  One of their two staffers told me that “we don’t know anything about” the Ter-Petrossian charge.  Then I emailed UNODC headquarters in Vienna, who told me that neither they nor the Tehran office “have seen [any] evidence that officials in the Armenian government are involved in drug trafficking or profiting from it.”

The “journalists” at (and other sites) could have made similar efforts to check out the story.  Eight minutes after posted their original piece with the erroneous headline, they published a follow-up reporting that Ter-Petrossian had denied the charge, but they then asserted that the US embassy in Baku had made the allegation.  The text from is here:

“According to the cable, officials from the U.S. embassy in Baku supposed that ‘Armenian political and government officials, including former President Tar-Petrosyan, were personally profiting from this trade.’”

Since this is obviously not true, I leave it to you to decide whether was a) lazy or b) deliberately distorting what the Wikileaks cable said in order to attack Ter-Petrossian.

The US State Department cable is just one of the entire cache of a quarter million such documents obtained by Aftenposten, whose editors have refused to reveal to me or anyone else how they got them.  Reportedly, Aftenposten editors take some pride in breaking the Wikileaks “news monopoly” with a handful of international newspapers, and the chief editor has written about the paradox of Assange being “angry because there was a leak from his own leak.”

That’s all for now.  More in the coming week or so…



Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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