Eye on Iran: MTN Agrees to Scale Back Iran Ops

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Independent Online: "Cellphone operator MTN has said it might be able to scale down its operations in Iran to avoid US sanctions, the government said today. Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim said that MTN had said this in discussions with the government about how to avoid the 'unilateral' sanctions which the US has imposed on Iran. Ebrahim was speaking at a briefing by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperate Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and her senior staff about her department's budget which she presented to Parliament on Wednesday... MTN has direct business interests in the US but the indirect impact of being cut out of the dollar system is also enormous. Ebrahim said in an interview afterwards that MTN had told the government it would not be expanding its operations in Iran. But asked if that meant MTN had also agreed to scale down its Iran operations, he said it had. But Ebrahim added that there were no indications yet if the US would accept a scaling down of MTN's ooperations or would demand that it would pull out of Iran entirely. The Iran contract is believed to be one of MTN's largest and most profitable foreign investments." http://t.uani.com/JFd0FP

Tech Central: "MTN, the R255bn Johannesburg-listed cellphone giant, is in danger of being whacked with sanctions by the US for its telecommunication activities in Iran and Syria.US President Barack Obama issued an executive order this week that allows American authorities for the first time to impose sanctions on individuals or entities found to have used new technologies, including cellphone tracking and online monitoring, to perpetuate 'grave' human rights abuses. Although MTN is not named in the latest order, which specifically targets companies and individuals aiding the Iranian and Syrian governments, White House officials indicated in a statement that the sanctions list could be expanded to include other countries using technology to crack down on dissent. The US order adds to MTN's legal headaches and reputational risks. Africa's largest mobile operator is being sued in US courts by rival mobile operator Turkcell for US$4,2bn in a claim centred on the bribery of Iranian government officials, a sophisticated weaponry scandal and vote peddling in the UN Security Council. MTN told the Mail & Guardian this week that it had hired international advisers, who were closely scrutinising the order and the possibility of sanctions." http://t.uani.com/I3HXyK

Reuters: "Lloyd's Register, a leading maritime risk management firm, has shut its operations in Iran and can no longer vouch for the safety of the OPEC member's fleet due to Western sanctions, the head of the company told Reuters. Lloyd's Register, a classification society that verifies the safety and environmental standards of vessels, has stopped assessing around 60 tankers and container ships owned by Iran's NITC and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines following pressure from the United States... 'The Americans came to us and said that if we continued to work for the Iranians we would be blacklisted in America,' Richard Sadler, the London-based chief executive of Lloyd's Register, said on the sidelines of a conference in Singapore. 'There was a lot of confusion about the sanctions and actually the recommendations was that it was better for British classification societies within Europe not to be dealing directly with NITC,' he said." http://t.uani.com/Ihbjyi

Nuclear Program

Reuters: "A Russian diplomat said on Wednesday that Iran and Western nations had shown interest in a Russian proposal aimed to help defuse the standoff over Tehran's nuclear programme, but suggested it had not been the focus of talks this month. Russia has been calling for a 'step-by-step' resolution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, which Western nations fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Tehran says is purely peaceful. Moscow says Iran should take measures to ease concerns about its intentions and comply with U.N. demands, and in return be rewarded with the gradual easing of sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council and Western states. In a proposal aired in February, Russia says that as a start, Iran could freeze the number of centrifuges for uranium enrichment at current levels and place other restrictions on its centrifuge use. In return, global powers would refrain from imposing new sanctions on Tehran." http://t.uani.com/IbKFmB

AP: "Israel's military chief said Thursday that other countries have readied their armed forces for a potential strike against Iran's nuclear sites to keep Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz did not specify which nations might be willing to support or take direct action against Iran. Still, his comments were one of the strongest hints yet that Israel may have the backing of other countries to strike the Islamic Republic to prevent it from developing nuclear arms. 'The military force is ready,' Gantz said. 'Not only our forces, but other forces as well.' 'We all hope that there will be no necessity to use this force, but we are absolutely sure of its existence,' he told The Associated Press, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of any other nation." http://t.uani.com/IbdG4J

WT: "Iran is recruiting a hacker army to target the U.S. power grid, water systems and other vital infrastructure for cyberattack in a future confrontation with the United States, security specialists will warn Congress Thursday. 'Elements of the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] have openly sought to pull hackers into the fold' of a religiously motivated cyberarmy, according to Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. Lawmakers from two House Homeland Security subcommittees will hold a joint hearing Thursday about the cyberthreat posed by Iran, as tensions over Tehran's nuclear program continue at a high level, and a possible Israeli strike looms." http://t.uani.com/JpKFBg

USA Today: "Iran is finding ways around international sanctions meant to pressure its leaders to abandon its nuclear aspirations, even as evidence mounts that sanctions are hurting the Iranian people, Iran analysts say. 'It's definitely having an effect,' says Kenneth Katzman a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service. 'The question is: Is it having enough of an effect,' to make Iran change course. Other experts say that despite high inflation and decreased Iranian oil exports, sanctions have not produced the desired impact on Iran's nuclear program, which the United States says is aimed at building a nuclear weapon. 'There are no indications that these sanctions are forcing leaders to rethink their nuclear program or rolling back their nuclear activities,' says Maseh Zarif, Iran team leader for the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project. The only thing that will cause a change in the regime's behavior, 'is a threat to regime survival,' Zarif says." http://t.uani.com/I3JJjp


Today's Zaman: "Iranian investors, who established a record number of companies in Turkey last year, have shifted their focus to the finance and banking sector as Western sanctions implemented because of its controversial nuclear program have eaten away at its economic maneuverability. According to information Today's Zaman obtained from Ankara financial circles, Iran's three biggest banks have started to work in order to become the newest actors in the Turkish banking sector. Tejarat Bank, Pasargad Bank and another bank, whose name was not disclosed, have knocked on the door of the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) recently." http://t.uani.com/JFfMLt

WSJ: "China, Japan and South Korea, Asia's largest oil consumers, significantly cut imports of Iranian crude in the first quarter of 2012 after the U.S. and the European Union moved to tighten sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, opening the way to rival suppliers.  Iran is the world's fifth-largest oil producer, exporting about 2.26 million barrels a day of crude in the first half of 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. China, Japan, India and South Korea made up the bulk of its customers, accounting for 59% of its exports or 1.46 million barrels a day. Iran, on the other hand, accounts for about 10% of each of those countries' crude imports. Between January and March 2012, China cut Iranian crude purchases by a third to about 350,000 barrels a day because of a pricing dispute which has since been resolved--it has consistently said that it respects only U.N.-imposed sanctions. Japan and South Korea cut imports by more than 20% to 330,000 barrels a day and 200,000 barrels a day, respectively, as political pressure from the U.S. mounted." http://t.uani.com/JsplbP

Reuters: "Japan's top refiner JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp will not be able to continue importing oil from Iran as tightening global sanctions against the Islamic Republic make it tough to pay for, ship and insure the oil, the company's senior executive said. Japan has already drastically cut loading of Iranian crude since April as its refiners cannot rely on the European reinsurance market to cover tankers. Industry sources have said Japanese buyers can no longer import Iran crude from July if the European Union does not grant an exemption from its planned ban on all European reinsurance, including the cover for pollution." http://t.uani.com/IbeXZL

Reuters: "South Korea will make sharp cuts in imports of Iranian crude from June as tightening Western sanctions make it impossible to secure insurance cover for tankers to ship the crude, industry and company sources said... With no resolution in sight, Hyundai Oilbank, one of two buyers of Iranian oil in South Korea, has decided to stop lifting cargoes from June, industry sources told Reuters. But bigger counterpart SK Energy is sticking with its plan to lift annual committed volumes at least until June. For July onwards, SK Energy, the country's largest refiner, is in talks with the government to secure insurance cover for tankers shipping the oil. If the government disagrees, the company will have little option but to halt purchases, said the sources, who declined to be identified as they are not authorized to talk to the media." http://t.uani.com/IyPxnn

Reuters: "Iranian energy companies could develop phase 11 of the giant South Pars gas field, a senior Iranian official said on Thursday, if a Chinese contractor does not meet Iran's ultimatum to move ahead with the project in the next 30 days. State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) was given a month's deadline by Iranian Oil minister Rostam Ghasemi last week to make a serious start on the project after 32 months of delay." http://t.uani.com/KdJgKk
WSJ: "The U.S. hasn't threatened to impose sanctions against India for its economic relations with Iran, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said Thursday. India's position is that it is bound by U.N. sanctions, but 'unilateral sanctions imposed by countries or [a] group of countries shouldn't impact legitimate trade relations with Iran,' Mr. Krishna told lawmakers in a written reply in the upper house of Parliament. India's crude oil imports from Iran are guided by its energy security needs, he said. The U.S. has given countries until June 28 to significantly reduce purchases of Iranian crude oil. Otherwise they will face sanctions." http://t.uani.com/Jsow2C

Domestic Politics

Reuters: "Iranian parliamentary candidates began campaigning on Thursday for the second round of elections set to weaken President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he grapples with worsening economic problems. Candidates allied to Iran's theocratic leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dominated the first round of elections in early March at the expense of those supporting Ahmadinejad. With more than 50 percent of seats filled by new members, the new parliament - which will convene in late May - will undergo radical change. The Iranian state news agency (IRNA) reported that 130 candidates, allowed by law one week to campaign, had started contesting May 4's elections for 65 remaining." http://t.uani.com/ITFirw

Foreign Affairs

Reuters: "Russia and Iran are helping Syria import fuel which it needs for heavy vehicles including army tanks, allowing Damascus to avoid the full impact of tightening Western sanctions imposed over its violent suppression of dissent. Syria received regular shipments of Russian gasoil and diesel over the winter and, despite Moscow's diplomatic support for demands that the government stop its attacks and pull back its forces, Russia sent another delivery this month. The shipments appear to be legal, as neither Russia nor Iran has signed up to Western sanctions barring such trade, and Moscow has blocked U.N. Security Council sanctions that would apply to all countries." http://t.uani.com/IQ1wv9