Iran mobile operator Irancell 'secures US technology'

Picture of Irancell simcard Irancell is one of the fastest growing mobile phone operators in the country

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Iran's second-largest mobile phone operator Irancell might have secured access to US technology - despite US sanctions.

Irancell obtained equipment from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems, Reuters news agency reported.

All three companies said they were not aware that Irancell had acquired their equipment.

US firms are not allowed to sell goods or services to Iran unless they obtain special permission.

Irancell, a joint venture between MTN Group based in South Africa and an Iranian government-controlled consortium, is reported to have expressed specific interest in acquiring embargoed products.

According to an internal Irancell document from 2008, seen by Reuters, the mobile phone operator was looking for network equipment, including Cisco routers, Sun servers and products from HP.

Technology companies based in the Middle East and Iran might have facilitated the supply.

International law

Oracle, which owns Sun Microsystems, and Cisco said they were investigating the matter.

"Cisco complies with all US export laws and requires our business partners to do the same. Any violation of US export controls is a very serious matter," the company's spokesman said.

ANALYSIS

This is another example of how easily trade and banking sanctions could be circumvented using middle-men. The US computer components have allegedly passed through many hands before landing in Iran. Unless a tracking device was used, it would be difficult to know which ports and customs officials they visited.

Iran, a nation of merchants, has been using shell companies to bypass sanctions for many years. Front shipping companies have conducted transactions on behalf of blacklisted Iranian ones. By the time the middle companies are spotted, new ones mushroom. Blacklisting the new ones requires legal procedures and takes time.

A spokeswoman for HP said its distribution contract terms prohibit sales into Iran.

"Compliance with US and international trade law is a high priority for HP," she said.

Chris Kilowan, who was MTN's top executive in Iran from 2004 to 2007, alleged to Reuters that MTN Group was directly involved in procuring US parts for Irancell, which launched in 2006.

According to Mr Kilowan, MTN Group agreed to allow its Iranian partners and Irancell to set up a local Iranian company with the "basic" purpose of evading sanctions on Iran.

In a response to the Reuters report, MTN Group said the company was committed to compliance with US sanctions.

"To the best of our knowledge, MTN personnel, directly or indirectly, did not acquire or seek to acquire equipment for use in Irancell's operations in a manner that was intended to avoid or circumvent US sanctions," the firm said.

But Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, told the BBC the allegations did not come as a surprise.

"During the past decade Iran has come up with various ways of getting around international sanctions," he told the BBC.

Prof Zibakalam said Iranian companies had been able to source many American and European goods through international markets, especially companies based in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

He added that international companies have been eager to assist Iran with equipment it needs.

In May, the US Senate tightened sanctions against Iran and made it mandatory for US-listed firms to disclose any Iran-related business.

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