Group puts pressure on MTN, Sasol to exit Iran

2012-02-19 10:00
Andile Nntingi and Thandeka Gqubule
Corporate heavyweights MTN and Sasol this week faced immense global pressure to quit troubled Iran as war talk and brinkmanship reached fever pitch.

Former US ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace and former CIA chief James Woolsey have joined forces to mount a campaign against MTN to force disinvestment from Iran.

Wallace and Woolsey marshal a powerful New York-based lobby group, known as United Against Nuclear Iran (Uani), which is packed with heavy hitters in the US foreign policy establishment.
Four South African companies – MTN, petrochemicals group Sasol, little-known Icarus Marine and Scavenger Manufacturing – are listed on Uani’s list of more than 500 companies earmarked by the lobby group to withdraw from the Islamic republic.

Icarus and Scavenger were thrust into the spotlight after a Mail & Guardian report fingered the companies for their alleged role in helping the Iranian navy to evade international sanctions by sneaking a James Bond-style speedboat (the Bradstone Challenger) to the Islamic republic through South Africa.

Diplomatic sources this week said the US government had been applying pressure on Pretoria to retreat from its previous stance on Iran. They say the US is hopeful that President Jacob Zuma’s administration will be more open to the US government position on Iran than that of former president Thabo Mbeki, under whose administration MTN and Sasol entered Iran.

Uani said the organisation decided to step up its campaign against MTN on learning of the company’s statement to The Washington Post. MTN was reported to have said that it was “business as usual”.

A Uani statement issued in New York said: “MTN’s callous statement that it plans to keep doing business as usual in Iran is regrettable. MTN owes it to its shareholders and customers to leave Iran, and stop partnering with a regime that uses mobile technology to track, stifle and oppress its own people.”

Uani spokesperson Nathan Carleton told City Press this week the organisation had contacted key MTN investors on Wall Street and written to South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, and South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, Baso Sangqu, to ask them to put pressure on South African companies to pull out of Iran. International Relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela said the department would respond to letters sent to diplomats.

Uani said it had succeeded in persuading key suppliers to MTN Iran (also known as Irancell) to scale back operations in Iran, which may present operational headaches for the embattled telecoms multinational.
Huawei and Nokia Siemens Networks announced that they would curb operations in Iran.

Wallace has even written to MTN chief executive Sifiso Dabengwa and copied the letter to US senators.
Another letter written to US President Barack Obama argued for the tightening of legislation involving commercial participation in Iran by American companies or those desiring to do business in the US.

Carleton said Dabengwa had responded to Wallace asking him to appreciate the complexities involved in MTN’s investment and operations in Iran, and promising a more comprehensive response later.

“We appreciate that he has responded and that the matter is complicated,” said Carleton.

“If they were to signal that they would scale down over time, it would be satisfactory.
“As things stand, companies like MTN, due to their continued presence in Iran and their assistance with the monitoring and tracking of government dissidents, would be ineligible to do business in the US.”

In the letter to MTN, Wallace said: “While Iran’s nuclear and terrorist activities should be reason enough for a corporation to pull out of Iran, the regime’s serious human rights abuses should be of particular concern to MTN.

“As MTN must know, there is ample evidence of Iran using telecommunications equipment to illegally track, monitor and, in some cases, arrest, detain and torture Iranian citizens opposed to the current extremist regime.

“While Uani recognises that telecommunications firms do not necessarily condone those activities, it is nevertheless a concern to many that corporations such as MTN allow their technology to be used to carry out egregious human rights abuses,” wrote Wallace.

“MTN must end its irresponsible business activities practices in Iran and, in particular, its
direct collaboration with the Iranian regime.”

South African companies have collectively sunk an estimated $6 billion (R47 billion) in investments in Iran.
The US campaign is mounted in the wake of claims of impropriety in MTN’s bold entry into the Iranian market in 2006.

Allegations of bribery and improper conduct have been levelled by Turkcell, the losers of the cellphone bid seven years ago. Turkcell has embarked on legal action against MTN.
MTN’s executive Paul Norman confirmed receiving Wallace’s letter and said it was investigating issues raised by the former US ambassador to the UN. It also pointed out that it was not the controlling shareholder in Irancell.

“MTN is aware of the various international sanctions regimes targeting Iran and monitors developments closely. We plan to carry out our operations in compliance with the terms of our licence agreements, the laws of the country in which we operate and applicable sanctions regimes. Naturally, MTN is sensitive to the complex issues regarding engagement in Iran.

“MTN seeks to ensure that our corporate values of respect for human rights and doing business ethically are reflected across all our operations, and we ask all our partners to adhere to these fundamental principles.”

Last week Sasol told The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post it was starting to diversify oil sources away from Iranian imports.

Not only was South Africa’s dependence on Iranian fuel significant, but Sasol, the world’s largest producer of motor fuel from coal, relied on Iranian oil imports for about 20% of its crude requirements, or 12 000 barrels a day. Sasol was also considering disposing of its 50% share in a $900 million chemical joint venture with Iran.

Sasol said it was diversifying its crude oil sourcing away from the Middle East. Sasol spokesperson Jacqui O’Sullivan said: “At this stage, we are not disclosing any additional information regarding our activities in Iran, other than what is in the public domain.”

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