Joseph Rozen
Geopolitical strategist, a former Israeli NSC official

Iran’s telecom sector in the service of terrorism

As Israel’s war against Hamas rages, and concerns grow over the possibility of another front in the North against Hezbollah, Iran continues to actively advance its objectives in the Middle East, including undermining Israel and the United States, across multiple domains. The Islamic Republic’s disruptive activities, spearheaded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), extend far beyond the region. Iran’s ability to advance its activities around the world is due to a complex network of private entities that provide the necessary infrastructure for financing terrorism, circumventing international sanctions, and supporting various activities related to terror.

Iran’s telecom sector is instrumental in the IRGC’s activities. One of the major companies in this sector is ArianTel, an Iranian wireless communications services provider, which played a pivotal role in the Iranian government’s grand scheme to establish an extensive surveillance network in pursuit of its objectives. Such a surveillance architecture, using multiple technological vendors, including some in Russia, Canada and the UK, is designed to gather full data of targeted communications.

Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity NGO tracking the proliferation of spyware and surveillance based in Canada, published a detailed report, which scrutinized genuine documents from ArianTel. The findings were nothing short of astonishing. They unveiled a concerted effort to construct an all-encompassing surveillance system, with a strong likelihood of its actual implementation, aided by foreign entities in facilitating this intricate setup.

One of the foreign entities enabling this is MTN Group, the leading telecommunications company in Africa. MTN entered the Iranian telecom sector in 2005, and launched its services in Iran a year later using a subsidiary named Irancell, a front company of the IRGC, in which MTN owns a 49% stake, the other 51% owned by the Iranian Electronic Development Company. Since then, MTN has been closely involved with ArianTel, as part of its joint venture with the Iranian government. MTN and Irancell enabled ArianTel and the IRGC to formalize multiple Access Points and Roaming agreements, granting unfiltered access to their cellular networks. This allowed the Iranian government to carry out surveillance operations on dissidents and critics within Iran and likely to operate overseas.

MTN group openly conducted business with the IRGC, and showed no reluctance to do so, even in the face of international sanctions. In 2020, after the IRGC was officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in 2019, MTN released a statement saying that it would continue its business as usual. Later, in April 2023, ArianTel was sanctioned by the European Union, for contributing to the telecommunications surveillance architecture mapped out by the Iranian government to quash dissent and critical voices in Iran.

But Iran’s use of telecommunication systems does not stop at surveillance and suppressing dissent at home. Rather, it is used to advance Tehran’s international aspirations as well.

Last month the US district court in New York gave a green light for an anti-terrorism act lawsuit against the MTN Group. The lawsuit emphasized that MTN knowingly supported terrorism by conducting business with entities linked to the IRGC. According to the lawsuit against MTN, the group has previously violated the Anti-Terrorism Act when it paid protection money of more than $100 million to al-Qaeda and the Taliban so that they would refrain from targeting its cellular towers. They also deactivated the towers at night, preventing US intelligence operations. Another dimension of concern is MTN’s decades-long association with Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization and a proxy of Iran. This relationship involved providing equipment that Hezbollah used as detonators and for tracking their adversaries.

The extensive record of MTN’s involvement in unlawful and criminal activities spanning nearly two decades must be addressed. MTN made conscious decisions to engage in bribery, technology transfer, and violations of sanctions, effectively supporting and facilitating Iran’s terrorism and its proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Based on MTN’s record, it is most likely that such activity also assisted other Iranian proxies, such as Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen.

In light of Iran’s involvement in Hamas’ attacks against Israel, and violence across the Middle East, the international community must collaborate to stop both Iran and its accomplices. This includes the blocking of channels of technology transfer and providers of technological infrastructure, such as the MTN Group. The lawsuit against MTN in New York is an important first step in the right direction.

About the Author
Joseph Rozen, is an expert and practitioner in international relations, Asian affairs, geopolitics and National Security. Mr. Rozen is a senior fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security. In his prior capacity, he was the director for Asia & Euro-Asia departments in the Israeli National Security Council, serving under two prime ministers and six national security advisors.