AN unusual international relief effort has a Mormon industrialist from Utah working with Muslim businessmen in Iran to help orthodox Christians in Armenia.
A relief operation funded by Jon Huntsman, founder of the Huntsman Chemical Corporation of Salt Lake City, the largest privately held chemical company in the United States, will bring 750 tons of food and other supplies to Armenia via Iran. The project, which got under way in Tehran Feb. 14, is part of Mr. Huntsman's five-year, $10-million effort to aid the beleaguered Caucasus country.
Huntsman ranks high among individual donors of humanitarian assistance to Armenia, according to Garnik Nanagulian, the deputy chief of mission at the Armenian Embassy in Washington. ``He's No. 1 from the United States.''
Huntsman and his family became interested in Armenia at the instigation of the late American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer, who urged Huntsman to contribute to relief efforts following the earthquake of 1988. The country has since been wracked by a war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan that is seeking autonomy. Armenia faces critical shortages of food and energy as well.
In 1989, Huntsman opened a concrete factory in the capital of Yerevan that has helped provide materials for housing for 30,000 people and sent an earlier shipment of relief supplies through Turkey. This time Huntsman is buying 50,000 cases of sugar, wheat, rice, oil, and other supplies through an Iranian consulting firm and having the material trucked to the Armenian border for distribution.
PETER HUNTSMAN, the chemical company's senior vice president and Jon Huntsman's eldest son, says his family's involvement in Armenia does not derive from any ethnic or religious ties, but grew out of the experience of assisting disaster victims in 1988. ``I doubt many people in our family even knew where Armenia was before the earthquake,'' he said in a phone interview from Salt Lake City.
Giving the food to Armenia will be one of Huntsman Chemical's smallest transactions this year, but ``probably the most rewarding,'' says Mr. Huntsman, who directs the relief effort. ``It's just had a tremendous impact on our family and on our employees who've been able to participate in this venture.''
Huntsman Chemical and its affiliates, with more than $3 billion in annual sales, maintain operations in 31 countries, including a packaging concern in Ukraine and a joint venture with Russia's Aeroflot airline.
Huntsman says he isn't sure if the Armenian efforts will even amount to a tax write-off, since the concrete factory is technically a business, although he says it does not make money. Energy shortages result in frequent shutdowns, he says, but the plant's 50 workers are kept on salary.
Huntsman has nothing but praise for his dealings with Iranian businessmen. ``They're as fair to do business with as any group of people I've ever dealt with.'' He says Shiite Iranians and Mormon Americans ``got along surprisingly well'' at a meeting in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Huntsman notes wryly that after comparing religious notes, the Shiites' only criticism concerned the Mormons' ``abandoning the practice of polygamy.''