MTN Close to Buying Stake in Iranian State Internet Provider

  • South African carrier seeking to buy 49% of Iranian Net
  • MTN in process of taking equivalent of $1 billon out of Iran

MTN Group Ltd. is near an agreement with the Iranian government to acquire a 49 percent stake in a state-owned internet provider as Africa’s biggest wireless carrier by sales seeks to expand in a fast-growing yet politically challenging market, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Company officials are planning a meeting with Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi later this month to finalize the purchase of shares in Iranian Net, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. The move will help smooth the process of repatriating funds from the Middle Eastern country as the government would prefer some profit to be invested locally, one person said.

“MTN continues to see growth potential in Iran and we look at opportunities on an ongoing basis to build on and complement our existing footprint,” spokesman Chris Maroleng said in e-mailed comments.

A deal would fuel MTN’s expansion in a market that opened up to foreign investors following the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions last year. The South African carrier already owns a 49 percent stake in Tehran-based mobile carrier Irancell Telecommunication Services Co., and has been repatriating some of the $1 billion that had been trapped in Iran before restrictions were removed. The company also agreed in October to invest about 20 million euros in Snapp.ir, the Islamic Republic’s first cab-hailing smartphone application.

Trump Risk

The purchase of the stake in Iranian Net is expected to be completed before the end of the first quarter, one of the people said. Further investments in Iran will be identified once the deal has been finalized, the people said. The talks were reported last year by TechRasa, a website focused on Iranian technology news.

U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran were lifted in April following a deal intended to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the agreement, putting its future in doubt. For now, Iran can benefit from a limited amount of Western investment that has started to flow, and some foreign companies like MTN have been able to move funds out of Iran that had been locked inside the country.

“In Iran there is a lot of risk with Trump taking the presidency,” Michael Treherne, an analyst at Johannesburg-based Vestact, said by phone. “Trump is making a lot of noise and can reverse the deal that eased the sanctions. That will make it very difficult for them to operate, but there is a lot of push back from Europe.”

MTN shares rose 0.8 percent to 116.63 rand as of 3:16 p.m. in Johannesburg, the first gain since Jan. 31. The company announced its first ever full year loss on Wednesday, related to issues in Nigeria and South Africa.

Iranian Net was founded in 2011 to provide high-speed broadband internet services to cities in Iran, but has missed several deadlines on the project due to a lack of capital, one of the people said. Delta Partners is the financial adviser on the deal and will assist the phone company and Iranian Net to compile a joint business strategy. A Delta spokesman said the company was unable to comment on the details at the moment.

MTN had 47.8 million subscribers in Iran as of the end of September, trailing only Nigeria as the company’s biggest market. Data sales soared 62 percent quarter-on-quarter as smartphone use in the country jumped, the company said on Oct. 24.

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