When the heart of 82-year-old Sarkis Soghanalian stopped beating in Miami’s private clinic on October 6, 2011, many US and Pentagon foreign intelligence officers sighed with relief. Soghanalian knew too much, and the fate of too many people depended on him.
But Soghanalian has never been talkative. He preferred to do business, not talk. And he had more than a serious matter.
He traded weapons. Sarkis Soghanalian was considered to be one of the world’s biggest arms dealers. The nickname “Merchant of death” stuck with him for life.
The life story of this extraordinary person formed the basis of a Hollywood film. He became the prototype of the protagonist of the crime drama “Lord of War.” Nicholas Cage played the role of Yuri Orlov, whose character as the world’s arms dominator was based on Soghanalian.
Sarkis Soghanalian’s client list was outstanding. It included Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the Nicaraguan general Anastasio Somoza, and the president of Peru Alba Fujimori.
He traded with the United States and the Soviet Union, France and Bulgaria, Argentina and Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala, Lebanon and Syria, Egypt and Mauritania… He armed the Pakistani Pashtuns, defended the Christians of Palestine, and promoted the Cuban counter-revolution.
Pentagon’s director Caspar Weinberger and King Abdullah II of Jordan reckoned with his opinion, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini hated him, revolutionary Che Guevara and Turkish President Kenan Evren were afraid of him. A large bounty for him was promised by the leader of Palestine Yasser Arafat and the leader of the Turkish ultranationalist organization “Grey Wolves” Alparslan Türkeş.
Late George Herbert Walker Bush and mother Teresa spoke highly about him. He was one of the richest people on the planet, had several of his own airplanes, but he would die in poverty.
Sarkis Soghanalian was born on February 6, 1929, in the city of Iskanderun, which at the time was a Syrian city. When the West turned a blind eye on the annexation of these lands by Turkey, his family moved to Aleppo and then to Beirut.
Hagop Soghanalian’s father was a hereditary onion merchant, for which he was called “soghanal”, which in Turkish means “onion buyer”, hence his last name.
But Sarkis preferred to trade a completely different product. His passion for weapons manifested itself in him in the ninth grade when he was hired as a loader and dragged boxes at a French military base.
“In 1944, I skipped school and worked in a French tank division. So I grew up surrounded by weapons. Being an Armenian, I was accustomed to fighting for survival. After all, we survived the Turkish genocide. All I wanted then was arms,” said Soghanalian in the only interview he ever gave. He was interviewed in March 2001 by the American program “Frontline.”
The initial capital of many large businessmen has been of criminal origin. Soghanalian had the same thing. Before taking up the deadly business at a legal level, he did not disdain to smuggle weapons.
In the second year of successful smuggling in Palestine, he was spotted by the British counterintelligence. We would be imprisoned in Haifa. However, he managed to bribe the right people and be released in six months. But he would run into problems again.
In 1950, the Arab sheikhs, taking a batch of goods delivered to them, refused to pay the promised $150 thousand. His debts had to be paid from his own funds. A year later, another incident: on the border with Jordan, a battle began with the customs officers. Shooting back from Degtyarev machine guns from his own 70-box cargo, Sarkis miraculously survived.
In a word, his first million Soghanalian earned not only with sweat but also blood.
When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, he had already bought a huge number of weapons at his own expense and shipped them at prime cost to his Beirut compatriots who organized self-defense units to defend the Armenian-populated areas.
The armed forces of the Maronites and other Christian communities also became interested in his services. He sold them weapons for his own benefit. His business emerged from the underground only after the American special services patronized it.
CIA agents had long watched the young ambitious Armenian and found that he could be useful to the United States. Soghanalian was offered American citizenship and extensive opportunities.
The Pentagon used the communications of the influential arms dealer to create a political foothold in the Arab countries, as well as to sell the surplus of outdated military equipment. It was cheaper to sell old weapons to the countries of the Middle East than to dispose of them.
But the strangest thing was that Soghanalian, while working with Americans, was able to maintain business relations with the Russians. He sold Soviet weapons to Syria and Egypt, which he did not hide from the Americans. In his interview with “Frontline” columnist William Kirchner, Soghanalian recalled:
“The Russians did not want to get their hands dirty. We had an established scheme, which allowed me to receive Soviet weapons in Bulgaria. There was no type of weapon that I could not get. The Russians knew that I was working closely with the US government, but that did not repel them.
They wanted to maintain the relationship because they needed foreign currency in cash. It was a good chance for them.”
As for the Americans, Sarkis Soghanalian’s contacts with Moscow didn’t bother them.
“The Americans knew what I was doing every hour, every minute. When I drank a glass of water, they knew what kind of water it was. I did not try to hide anything from the Americans,” said the “Merchant of Death.”
Soghanalian made it clear that everything he did happened in reality not only with the knowledge but also with the approval of Washington. “If I am loyal to someone, then I and they are one team. Of course, I consult with the US government before signing a contract with a new client,” he assured.
Nothing would threaten Soghanalian if the American policy hadn’t been so changeable. He successfully armed Saddam when the interests of Washington demanded the strengthening of Iraq in its conflict against Iran.
The Armenian trader was a frequent visitor to the Baghdad dictator who was pleased with the delivery of the most exotic American weapons. The worth of the contracts concluded by him in Iraq was estimated at billions of dollars. His deliveries were legal: for every dollar earned, Sarkis Soghanalian paid income tax.
But Hussein’s plans to seize Kuwait played a fatal role for his supplier. After Saddam turned his gun on the Americans and their partners, Soghanalian was accused of abuse of power. He was reminded that in addition to American weapons, he supplied Iraq with French howitzers and Soviet long-range guns.
During the trial, he stated:
“My weapons were supplied to fight the Khomeini regime and not to kill our guys. And this was done with the knowledge of the American authorities. My conscience is clear.”
Soghanalian wouldn’t be in custody for too long. Soon, the case was closed due to lack of evidence.
In reality, it was a deal. The merchant paid for his freedom with the secret information he had. He helped the US intelligence agencies expose a network of Lebanese counterfeiters who produced high-quality fake $100 bills.
A compromise has been reached every time Soghanalian got behind bars.
The “intelligence in exchange for freedom” deal worked flawlessly. It did not fail in 1981 when law enforcement officers accused him of frauds in the sales of machine guns in Mauritania. Instead of 9 years of strict regime, he was sentenced to a suspended sentence on probation.
The judge would admit that such an outcome of the case was an initiative of the US Department of State. And when the French missiles delivered by Soghanalian to Argentina sank the pride of the British fleet, the destroyer “Sheffield”, near the Falkland Islands, the CIA stood to the defense of their agent. London failed to prove the guilt of the “arms baron.”
But Soghanalian’s relations with the CIA completely deteriorated when, by ridiculous chance, 50.000 AK-47 assault rifles supplied by him to the Peru special services were intercepted by Colombian partisans. Soghanalian was blamed for the incident.
“The reason for the failure of the operation was that the Fujimori government was corrupt. It did business in its own interests,” said Sarkis Soghanalian.
But no one wanted to listen to him. This time, the CIA did not intercede for him and decided to cut off their relations. Soghanalian was again imprisoned. Much of his property was confiscated.
“When the US government needed me, it knew that it could count on me at any moment. Yesterday, I was a friend to them, and today, I suddenly became an enemy. Now in the US, a new administration with new people resides. The old partners are aging and retiring. But I still consider the US government to be my friend,” confessed Soghanalian in his interview with William Kirchner.
The end of the Cold War broke many of Soghanalian’s business contacts. Money no longer flowed to him like a river. There was a time when “Pan Aviation Inc.” owned by the arms baron paid tens of millions of dollars in taxes to the state treasury, and his three-story oceanfront home was one of the best in Miami.
But nothing lasts forever. His airplanes had to be sold. His name was out of the list of billionaires. Business problems were exacerbated by his compromised health condition. His heart had a hard time supplying his 300-pound body.
The disabled veteran of the arms business was allowed to be released in order to be held under house arrest. But he didn’t have an own home at the time. The former billionaire’s family lived in a rented apartment. Soghanalian would die practically bankrupt.
None of the two children, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren of Soghanalian continued the arms business. They found themselves in more peaceful professions, but they did not consider their ancestor’s work criminal.
Son of Soghanalian Garo said the following about his father: “You can hear a lot of bad things about him. But he served America. His goal was to help the United States. He had deep patriotism, which is often overlooked…”.
Having a dubious business, Soghanalian was not an unprincipled, greedy merchant who’d do anything for money. And this is confirmed by the fact that he refused his partners from the CIA when they offered him to participate in the notoriously adventurous Iran-Contra affair. He replied that he would not arm those against whom he had worked before.
Apparently, we know only a small part of what Sarkis Soghanalian actually did. But what we know is enough to be surprised at the scale of this ambiguous personality.
Well-known Los Angeles lawyer of Armenian descent Mark Geragos who defended Soghanalian in court in the Peruvian case once said: “Until I met him, I didn’t believe in half of what was said about him. But it all turned out to be true.”
“They call me ‘Merchant of Death.’ But I am an ordinary person. I know that I’m not doing anything bad. There was a time when Alfred Nobel was also called a death merchant for creating dynamite. But years later, the most prestigious scientific award was named after him. So the stigma that has become attached to me does not bother me at all,” said Soghanalian.
The fact that he was a patriot not only of America but also of Armenia is indisputable. After the 1988 Spitak earthquake, Sarkis Soghanalian transported food and medicine purchased with personal money to Armenia with his own cargo aircraft.
In 1990, he funded the costs of acquiring land in Newport Beach for the construction of an Armenian church. He made a significant contribution to important national projects that aren’t discussed out loud.
In his only interview, Soghanalian found it necessary to say the following: “I have helped some countries maintain their independence. I do not want to speak in detail. I helped my country, Armenia, when it needed me. That’s all I can say…”