On the night of October 23, 2012, a military facility in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum erupted in a massive explosion. Video of the burning Yarmouk weapons depot revealed munitions streaming skyward, and white flashes going off amidst a burgeoning fireball. The explosion looked large enough to cremate anything it touched.
But satellite photos told a more interesting story. Three days later, the Satellite Sentinel Project, which uses satellite imagery to track human rights abuses in remote corners of Sudan, published a detailed before-and-after analysis of the incident. The "before" photos showed a small cluster of shipping containers piled next to a warehouse. In the "after" photos, the warehouse was barely scathed, while the shipping containers had been vaporized.
Well before the photographs' publication, it was suspected that Yarmouk was an Iranian front, a vital link in funneling weapons to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. It was widely assumed that the explosion was the result of an Israeli air strike.
The suit alleges that between 2003 and 2005, MTN won its Iranian license through a series of lucrative kickbacks. These consisted ofstraightforward bribes paid to Iranian officials, although the suit presents strong evidence that South Africa's pro-Iran votes at the IAEA between 2005 and 2008 were a quid pro quo for the Islamic Republic's approval of MTN's Irancell investment. The complaint boasted over 60 pages of documentation, including damning internal emails leaked by an employee at MTN's Tehran offices. It goes into specific detail about vehicles and military equipment the South Africans would provide to Iran if MTN were awarded the Irancell stake, a list which included "Rooivalk helicopters (based on the U.S. Apache platform), frequency hopping encrypted military radios, sniper rifles, G5 howitzers, canons...and other defense articles." (The weapons were never delivered, and the Turkcell case was withdrawn in May of 2013–but only because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a month earlier that international corporate civil suits could no longer be tried in U.S. court).
The scandal has resulted in no criminal prosecutions in South Africa. MTN still owns nearly half of Irancell, an arrangement that nets the company over $117 million a year. Irancell's Iranian owner is a holding company whose investors include Iran Electronics Industries, a government-connected electronics and defense company that has been under U.S. sanctions since September of 2008. Iran and the IRGC are still leveraging their relationship with South Africa, even after the collapse of the companies' oil trade. And according to Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the country is "a very hospitable place for Iranian sanctions-busting." In early June, the U.S. Treasury Department added 37 Iranian front companies to its sanctions list. Three were based in South Africa.
This pattern—in which Iran scrapes for asymmetrical gains within a challenging diplomatic environment, and in spite of its own internally divided conventional diplomacy—repeated itself in Nigeria. In October of 2010, Nigerian authorities scored the largest seizure of an Iranian weapons shipment in African history, when a container ship carrying crates of rocket launchers and heavy mortars was impounded in the port of Lagos. This embarrassment hardly ended Iran's efforts in the country. In June of 2013, a Hezbollah cell was uncovered in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. And Iran has an asset in Nigeria that's arguably more valuable than a foothold for its Lebanese proxies: Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a radical Iranian-trained Shi'ite cleric and a promoter of Iranian state ideology in Sub-Saharan Africa's most populous country.