Africa's largest mobile operator, MTN, is struggling to repatriate most of the $1.15 billion stuck in Iran and Syria due to sanctions, but has no plans to abandon its business in the countries.
The company said it has four months under current international arrangements to find a solution to getting $900 million out of Iran. MTN also has $250 million in Syria.
The operator said it is also in talks with several international authorities including the U.S. Treasury Department officials in a bid to get its money out of Iran, stuck there since the sanctions were imposed over two years ago.
The U.S. and other Western countries believe Iran is enriching uranium to levels that could be used in nuclear weapons, and have imposed economic sanctions. Iran denies the accusations, claiming its nuclear program is only for civilian purposes.
The sanctions have made it difficult for any company doing business with U.S. businesses to take assets out of Iran and Syria.
The sanctions are also frustrating MTN efforts to import networking equipment to improve service levels in Iran and expand its network in the country as desired.
MTN has a 49 percent share in Irancell, owned and controlled by the Iranian Electronic Development Company.
Iran is MTN's second largest operation after Nigeria, and has 50 million subscribers.
According to the company, in the first half of this year, it added 1.3 million subscribers in Iran and received a 3G license in the country. It claims it has also rolled out 2,146 towers in anticipation of being able to launch 3G services.
MTN chief financial officer Brett Goschen said the $900 million that is stuck in Iran includes dividends and loans that the telecom company received from lending institutions to support its expansion.
"There are several complexities to overcome and if the current option fails, we will look at other avenues. But under the current international arrangements, MTN has four months to find a solution to getting its cash out of Iran," Goschen said this week during the presentation of the company's financial results. He did not elaborate on what the international arrangements are.
Goschen said MTN is also trying to repatriate money from war-torn Syria. The U.S. government also has the Syrian regime and Syrian President Bashar Al-Asaad under sanctions. The Syrian government is clamping down on protestors and insurgents who are pushing for Asaad to step down. The EU has also imposed sanctions on Syrian.
But MTN Group president and CEO Sifiso Dabengwa said the company has no plans of pulling out of Syria despite the fighting and the sanctions.
In fact, Dabengwa said, "MTN is bidding to convert its build-operate-transfer license in Syria to a fully fledged license and will use some of the money that is blocked in Syria to pay for the conversion."
He said the license is expected to convert on Jan. 1, 2015. Dabengwa said it will be a 20-year license.