By Avi Jorisch
Business Times (South Africa)
March 25, 2012
MTN has a corporate responsibility to cease doing business with Iran and colluding with a state sponsor of terror that uses its technology to track, silence and kill its people. The South African government should take immediate action to prevent this abuse of the telecommunications industry.
MTN’s business ties to Iran are significant and represent approximately a fifth of the company’s revenue. It has a 49% stake in Iran’s second-largest cellphone operator, MTN-Irancell, which has cornered almost half of the Iranian cellphone market. The remaining 51% is owned by the Iran Electronic Development Company (IEDC), a company affiliated with the Iranian government. Its principal shareholder, Iran Electronic Industries, has been blacklisted by both the US Treasury and the European Union for its role in proliferating weapons of mass destruction.
On January 27 an MTN spokesman said that while the company was monitoring events in Iran, it was conducting "business as usual" in the country. Minister of Communications Dina Pule further emphasised that there would be no pressure on MTN to pull out of Iran.
MTN has played a critical role in helping the Iranian regime to hunt down its opposition. In 2009, when Iranians took to the streets to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election, MTN-Irancell, along with Iran’s other cellphone carriers, reportedly followed government instructions to suspend text messaging and block internet phone services such as Skype, which were used extensively by the opposition movement.
In 2011 it was reported that MTN-Irancell worked with Chinese firm Huawei Technologies, which installed tracking equipment that allows the Iranian intelligence services to locate people through their cellphones. This enables the regime to pursue, jail and often kill opposition members. Huawei also reportedly provided this equipment to Iran’s other telecommunication providers.
There have been reports that MTN’s entry may have influenced South Africa’s foreign policy. There are reliable reports that since MTN’s launch in Iran, the company has lobbied the South African government to take a muted stance on Iran’s nuclear programme, despite the expanding UN, US and EU sanctions programme. There have even been rumours that MTN’s lobbying was a quid pro quo for the cut-rate ?300-million licence fee the company paid Iran, and for the ability to secure a foothold in one of the world’s most lucrative telecoms markets.
Turkish company Turkcell, which lost to MTN in its bid for the Iranian market, is now taking MTN to court in the US for improper payments to Iranian and South African government officials.
Turkcell has contended that MTN also enlisted South African support to provide military equipment to Iran.
The traditional South African-Iranian relationship has revolved around lucrative bilateral trade and Iran’s opposition to the apartheid regime that once ruled South Africa. Since 1995 South Africa has increased its trade with Iran by $4-billion a year, and by 2007 it was importing nearly $21-billion Iranian oil annually. Given that there are many sources of oil around the globe, Pretoria’s extensive trading with Tehran raises serious questions, to say the least.
There are many reasons why South Africa should seriously reconsider its relationship with Iran. The Islamic Republic endorses a radical form of religion that is at odds with the values of South Africa’s post-apartheid society.
Iran and its proxies have engaged in multiple acts of terror and crimes against humanity.
In addition, Iran’s human rights record is unspeakable.
MTN has a responsibility to stop supporting Iran. Partnering with a regime that uses mobile technology to track and kill the opposition is a betrayal of its corporate responsibility.
The South African government should take a strong stance against Iran as long as it oppresses its people, proliferates terrorism and marches towards a nuclear bomb.
Jorisch is a former US Treasury Department official and a senior fellow for counter-terrorism at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington DC.
See also Iran