Cold War “Merchant of Death” Dies in Miami

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October 4, 2011

FRONTLINE has learned that Sarkis Soghanalian, a Lebanese-born arms dealer who sold weapons to rebels and autocrats, including Saddam Hussein, died of natural causes on Tuesday in Miami. He was 78.

Featured in our 1990 documentary, The Arming of Iraq, Soghanalian spoke candidly about how, with secret support from the U.S. government, he became the former Iraqi dictator’s major arms supplier during the peak of the Iran-Iraq war. Once fabulously wealthy, with a vast fleet of jet cargo planes and homes in a dozen countries including luxury villas in in Miami and Palm Springs, and a horse ranch in Fort Lauderdale, he died virtually broke, his family insists.

Capable of negotiating in eight languages, Soghanalian was a Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, who proclaimed he was also a “patriotic American.” For several decades, he had a close working relationship with the CIA and U.S. military intelligence services. But eventually, these relationships soured when his weapons sales began running counter to U.S. policy. Nor did he pay taxes on his arms-dealing: Documents show that by the late 1990s, he had accumulated a massive IRS judgment nearing a billion dollars.

In his heyday, Soghanalian forged a close alliance with the Reagan administration, particularly with the office of then Vice President George Bush. That alliance snapped when the U.S. went to war with Iraq in 1991, and he was prosecuted for the sale of helicopters to Iraq during its war with Iran. Soghanalian always insisted that his sales to Iraq were done with Washington’s not-so-secret blessing.

Soghanalian also supplied Saddam with billions of dollars in weaponry from France, Brazil, Chile, and Austria, in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. All this was done with the knowledge of the U.S. government, according to Soghanalian, whose testimony was corroborated by officials interviewed for the documentary.

Publicly, the U.S. maintained it obeyed the United Nations embargo of the combatants in the Iran-Iraq war. But privately, Washington wanted Iran’s theocratic regime to be bludgeoned by the eight-year conflict with Saddam.

Like so many other things about Soghanalian, he was not what he seemed. The rotund gunrunner was also a philanthropist, donating generously to Armenian earthquake victims. He professed to be a staunch anti-communist, yet he had no qualms about turning to the Soviets to provide weapons for the Christian militias in Lebanon’s civil war. During the Falklands War he armed Argentina with French made Exocet missiles used to sink a British cruiser. He later acknowledged he “regretted” that transaction, saying it happened before war broke out with Great Britain.

Profiled twice on CBS’ 60 Minutes, as well as on FRONTLINE and FRONTLINE/World, Soghanalian, was finally sentenced in 1993 to six-and-a-half years in prison for conspiring to smuggle 103 combat helicopters to Saddam, breaking the U.N. embargo. He wound up having his sentence reduced to two years by trading intelligence on the secret location in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where the Iranians and Hezbollah were printing counterfeit U.S. $100 bills. Known as “Supernotes,” these $100 bills were so authentic-looking that they were deemed a threat to U.S. national security.

Soghanalian landed in trouble again with U.S. authorities when he was indicted in 1999 for wire fraud and held without bail. His sentence was reduced to 10 months after U.S. authorities intervened on his behalf claiming he had provided “substantial assistance to law enforcement.” As part of the deal, Soghanalian turned over to U.S. officials details of a sale of 50,000 AK-47 assault rifles he made in 1999 to the former Peruvian intelligence chief, Vladimir Montesinos, an erstwhile American ally, that ended up with leftist Colombian rebels. Soghanalian was allowed to leave for Amman, where he had close ties with the Jordanian monarchy.

Soghanalian traded information for favors from the U.S. government for decades. He maintained an ongoing relationship with the FBI after he became estranged from the CIA. Overweight and in poor health, Soghanalian finally returned to Miami to be with his family. At first, he was held in custody, but as his health worsened, leaving him crippled, he was allowed to stay with his family.

“He lived large and he played hard,” says his former attorney, Mark Geragos, who defended him in the Peruvian arms-running case. “Until I met him, I never believed one-half of one percent of the things he was supposed to have done. But they all turned out to be true.”

Photo: Soghanalian leaves federal court in Miami, Fla. on Oct. 4, 1991. (AP Photo/Bill Cooke)


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