The Wall Street Journal, 23 Jan 2012 - U.S. diplomats and lobbyists are stepping up pressure to reduce African commercial ties to Iran as part of a growing global push to squeeze Tehran, an effort that has already led several African companies to consider leaving the country.
Among the results so far, Angola’s state-owned energy company, Sonangol, is considering pulling out of an Iranian gas deal, and Sasol Ltd. of South Africa says it is discussing whether to divest itself of its 50% share in a $900 million Iranian petrochemical project.
More Iran Sanction Bill Exempts BP Project The moves come as the U.S. and European Union continue to expand sanctions and try to persuade consumers of Iranian oil to find alternative supplies to choke off Tehran’s revenue and force it to abandon what the West says is a program to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies.
U.S. officials visited China, Japan and South Korea this month to ask them to reduce crude purchases from Iran. Many U.S. and European companies that did business in Iran through subsidiaries already have backed out amid an expanding sanctions regime.
African companies have been among those entering Iran as Western giants pull out. Meanwhile, Iranian exports, largely oil, to sub-Saharan Africa rose to $3.60 billion in 2010 from $1.36 billion in 2003, according to the International Monetary Fund. In addition to its ties with Angola and South Africa, Iran has pledged investments in Uganda, Ghana and Senegal, though not all have materialized.
Now, African countries that were once viewed as distant from the conflict with Iran are getting drawn into the sanctions effort.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman in the past week discussed with South Africa’s minister of energy ways that Pretoria might replace Iranian oil imports with other sources of supply. South Africa relies on Iranian oil for about one-quarter of its imports.
U.S. government representatives also have met with private companies in South Africa to discuss Iran sanctions, a U.S. spokeswoman said.
‘We’re having a discussion about ways in which countries can reduce their consumption of Iranian oil and do so safely,’ Mr. Poneman said in South Africa.
The U.S. government also has raised the issue of Iran sanctions in conversations with the Angolan government, said State Department spokeswoman Marissa Rollens.
Two Angolan oil officials said Sonangol is considering exiting a preliminary agreement to take a 20% stake, potentially valued at about $1.5 billion, in a project in Iran’s South Pars natural-gas field. A third Angolan oil official said a final decision hadn’t been made.
One of the officials said discussions about pulling out were tied to concerns that following through with the deal could expose Sonangol to U.S. sanctions.
Sonangol, whose full name is Sociedade Nacional de Combustíveis de Angola Ltd., also has worried the investment would antagonize Iran’s critics in the U.S., where the Angolan energy concern maintains an oil-trading business.
The U.S., with investments in Angola ranging from oil to agriculture, is a more preferable development partner than Iran, the Angolan official said.
Spokesmen for Sonangol and the Angolan oil ministry declined to comment.
Sasol, one of South Africa’s biggest companies by market capitalization, reiterated recently that it is considering an exit from its petrochemical project in Iran, largely because it feared being targeted by sanctions from the U.S., Europe and the United Nations. Sasol declined to comment on the timing or reason for the move.
Like Sonangol of Angola, Sasol has commercial interests at stake in the U.S., where it is in the process of building a $10 billion plant in Louisiana to turn coal into motor fuel.
Separately, Washington lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran says it is preparing a campaign to persuade South Africa’s flagship telecommunications company MTN Group Ltd. to abandon its stake in Iran’s second-largest cellphone operation. The company derives 21% of its subscriber base from Iran, according to data from September.
Nathan Carleton, spokesman for United Against Nuclear Iran, says the group fears investment in Iranian telecommunication aids government censorship and efforts by officials to track cellphone users. MTN declined to comment on its business in Iran.
Tehran has responded to the Western sanctions push by threatening to block oil trade through the Strait of Hormuz.
On Sunday, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier sailed through the strait and into the Persian Gulf without incident, Reuters reported. Iran had earlier threatened to take action if a U.S. carrier returned to the waterway.
Attempts to reach the Iranian foreign and commerce ministries and the Iranian Chamber of Commerce in Tehran to comment on business with African companies were unsuccessful.