By Nadav Eyal
“This is a professional collegiality.”
Translated by Viktoria Lymar
Edited by Steven Stenzler
8 June 2012
What does the regime in Tehran have to do with the government of South Africa? The secret lies in a contract for a mobile phone license, heavy suspicion of corruption and a lot of illegal weapons.
They dubbed it “Project Snooker.” It involved senior ministers, one president, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, hundreds of millions of dollars, code names like “The Fish” (illegal weapons), the “Short J” (ambassador) and the “Long J” (the Iranian minister), and also buying votes in the U.N. and IAEA. And corruption. A great deal of corruption.
Snooker was an appropriate name. You hit one ball, and it hits another one. Supporting the nuclear program in Iran - obtaining a contract of billions - supplying illegal weapons. And that, according to the news (nothing's verified, nothing was proven in court) was just the beginning. But it's really better to start from the beginning.
At the end of March 2012, an extraordinary lawsuit was filed in civil court in Washington, D.C.. The claimant was a giant Turkish company Turkcell, dealing with media and mainly with mobile phones. The defendant was MTN company – another giant corporation, a South African one.
Both companies are impressive entities, immense ones. MTN built itself as a success story of South Africa after apartheid. A company that hadn't been tainted in the era of racism, with a backbone of management especially close to the African National Congress party which leads South Africa. And the most essential thing: exceptional business success, with over 170 million customers worldwide and specialization in what's called “emerging markets;” in its case – Syria, Afghanistan and also Iran. Iran, in practice, is a factor behind the suit.
Turkcell's claim was simple: in 2004 it won a government contract to become the second mobile phone operator in Iran. This meant entering an almost empty market that was only waiting for business exploitation. Shortly after that, the Iranians began to hinder the Turks under all kinds of pretexts. In retrospect, it became evident to Turkcell what was standing behind them: MTN that had decided to embark on what one of its managers termed “Project Snooker”.
As a business decision (everything allegedly and according to the claims of the Turks) the South African company made up its mind to do anything, to pay any price, to bribe whomever it needs to, in order to reverse the decision. “It's the last virgin market,” reportedly versed one of the MTN managers in an internal e-mail. They did not intend to give up.
A Gesture of Good Will: Abstention in the IAEA Vote
Here, the prosecution begins to lay out a fantastic story of corruption. The company’s consultation with its executives in Tehran determined, unequivocally, that it takes a governmental decision at the highest rank, i.e. of the spiritual leader and his family, in order to reverse the results of the contract. And it requires deep political involvement. So the documents attached by the prosecution are going into details of how the foci of power were identified. The South African Ambassador in Tehran, for example, was the one to promote MTN's candidacy and purportedly received for his services a nice bribe of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. An Iranian deputy minister was also engaged in these attempts, and he was rewarded as well.
But the most remarkable turnaround is undoubtedly the matter of the Iranian nuclear program. At a certain stage, the Iranians clarify that South Africa's position as to the possible sanctions on their country would be significant in ousting Turkcell in favor of MTN. What do we need to do? – asked MTN representatives. The status of South Africa – a country considered one or the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement bloc – is obvious to all sides. A moral voice, ostensibly. The Iranians conditioned the gargantuan cellular contract on specific votes at the IAEA Board and in the U.N.
The company executives promise that they can deliver the goods. As a gesture of good faith, South Africa abstains in critical votes dealing with sanctions on Iran. The last vote was on 24 November 2005. A few days later, MTN gains the mega contract. As of today, it has over 30 million customers in Iran and counting. And counting the money, of course.
A number of South African government figures were involved in arranging such a vote, and naturally, the closeness of the gigantic corporation to the ruling party was crucial. However, the votes were in truth just a preliminary step. Because the Iranians wanted, and made it clear that they wanted, sensitive and prohibited security equipment.
To the point that Ali Larijani, the most important associate of Iran's Supreme Leader and today, the Parliament Speaker, went on a mission to a secret meeting with the President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. He took off to Pretoria in 2007 to remind Mbeki of “certain promises” given in 2004 in order to obtain the cellular license in Iran.
The Iranians were outraged, and rightly so. Besides certain diplomatic espousal of their nuclear program, the South Africans promised way more – helicopters, sophisticated radar equipment, optical helmets for fighter pilots, Howitzer cannons and access to South Africa's excellent defense industries and their "Rafael"1 - DENEL company. Needless to say, all supplies like that are a flagrant violation of the sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and it was crystal clear to all the parties. The code chosen for referring to the weaponry: "The Fish."
According to the allegations, MTN cared to dispatch the South African Defense Minister to Tehran to ensure the signing of a secret security memorandum of understanding. Much to the Iranians’ fury, the South Africans seemingly violated their promise. Over and over again the MTN representative in Tehran warns that the regime is angry about the security cooperation not taking place, despite the company already operating in the country. At the same time that the spiritual leader is sending Larijani, President Ahmedinejad sends out the Foreign Minister Mottaki to Pretoria to get the answers: when are the arms coming?
The Key Person in Project Snooker Defected
The whole story could have sounded like the commercial claim of a too imaginative huge Turkish company. MTN, on its part, denies everything and fully. It argues that this is about the frustration of a company that lost, and now brings up false allegations in court.
The South African company has just one problem here: its executive in Tehran, Chris Kilowan, the one who allegedly handed over the documents to the Turkish company. In other words, the most important man in “Project Snooker,” defected. And he brought with him paperwork, including mails signed by the former CEO of MTN. The elite unit of the South African police launched a formal investigation this week.
The South African vote, in any case, neither added nor took away. The sanctions passed. The arms, apparently, have not been shipped. However, what MTN did in Iran greatly influenced lives of tens of millions of people. The South African commercial company, one representing the new South Africa – a country that exalts in its throat global human rights, – enlisted two partners: the Iranian governmental company considered a pipe for transferring forbidden technologies to the security establishment in Iran, and a large [voluntary] organization which is the official front of the Revolutionary Guards.
In fact, formally, the Iranian state owns 51 percent of this cellular project. Employees in MTN tell how it’s working: an entire secret floor where the Revolutionary Guards and the notorious Basij [militia] sit; a confidential agreement between the South Africans and Iranians that allows for the tapping of mobile phones; and of course, from time to time one of the Iranians comes up and asks for full information on a certain phone number, and the South Africans give – willingly. “This is a professional collegiality,” MTN explained once to a South African newspaper. “Still, we’re partners.”
Original Hebrew article:
Image credit: MTN Irancell, Business Day
1. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Israeli authority for development of weapons and military technology