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South Africa's MTN hopes for U.S.-Iran thaw to free its cash

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Better U.S.-Iranian relations would be very welcome for South African mobile phone operator MTN Group as it has been unable to repatriate around $450 million from a unit in Iran due to sanctions, a company spokesman said.

Johannesburg-based MTN, Africa's largest mobile phone operator, said its funds had been blocked since early last year because of Washington's sanctions against Tehran.

"Our primary focus remains to ensure that we are sanction-compliant with everything we do there," said spokesman Nik Kershaw. "But obviously it would be a great outcome if things did improve."

MTN owns 49 percent of local unit MTN Irancell, which contributed nearly 10 percent of its 2012 revenue.

Iran's Ghanoon newspaper on Tuesday quoted MTN Irancell executive Alireza Ghalambar Dezfouli as saying MTN had been unable to repatriate around $450 million from Iran.

Kershaw confirmed the money in Iran was around that amount, although he could not immediately give an exact figure because of exchange rates.

Around $120 million of that is dividends owed to MTN with the remainder made up of loans due to be repaid to the South African company, he said.

There have been signs of a tentative reconciliation between Washington and Tehran since the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, widely seen as a pragmatist and a centrist.

The United States described two days of nuclear negotiations with Iran this month as the most serious and candid to date after Western diplomats said Tehran hinted it was ready to scale back sensitive atomic activities to secure urgent sanctions relief.

(Corrects Oct 22 story to show Iran contributed nearly 10 pct of 2012 revenue, not 24 percent)

(Reporting by David Dolan in Johanesburg and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; editing by David Evans)

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