File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation is probing allegations that Yusuf Saloojee, the former South African ambassador to Iran, received a $200 000 (R1.65m) bribe to assist cellular operator MTN Group to get an operating licence in Iran.

Clayson Monyela, the spokesman for Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, confirmed the investigation, but he would not be drawn into details around the start and terms and reference of the investigation or the possible penalties Saloojee faced if found guilty.

He said the investigation was being conducted by internal investigators.

Saloojee is still employed by the department.

Monyela said Saloojee was aware of the probe but the department had not informed MTN as the government unit did not deal directly with individual private companies.

Details of Saloojee’s alleged involvement in MTN’s successful bid for Iran’s second cellular network licence in 2005 first emerged in court papers filed by bid loser Turkcell, in a US federal court in March.

Turkcell claimed it was blocked from concluding the deal with Iran in 2004.

MTN allegedly paid $200 000 to property attorneys Gildenhuys Lessing Malatji on April 26 in 2007 to buy a house in South Africa for Saloojee for his services.

The company has denied the allegations, which still have to stand up to scrutiny in court.

MTN last week filed a motion in a Washington court to have the $4.2 billion lawsuit, filed under the Alien Tort Statute, dismissed.

It said the US had no jurisdiction to decide on the matter.

The company has repeatedly denied it had bribed South African and Iranian officials or promised Iran weapons and UN votes, among other allegations. It said Turkcell’s bid for the licence had failed because it did not meet commercial and legal requirements.

MTN holds 49 percent of Irancell, Iran’s largest cellphone network operator, in a joint venture with Iran Electronic Development Company.

Monyela said the department was only now investigating because “the reality of the matter is this issue has been raised repeatedly… and necessitated an investigation”.

The DA’s David Maynier said the probe was a “surprise development” because the minister had previously denied the need for an investigation.

The Hawks, the crack SAPS investigating unit, confirmed last month that it was also probing Turkcell’s allegations.

Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela said yesterday “we are still at the early stages”.

Maynier called on Nkoana-Mashabane to make her department’s findings public as soon as possible.

He said the minister had confirmed in reply to a parliamentary question that Saloojee was not given permission to conduct paid work outside his official duties.

Maynier added: “It is not clear why the department has done an about turn, but the institution of this investigation is nevertheless a welcome development.”