Iran’s Communications & IT Ministry invited potential bidders to express interest in the licence on 25 August. “We have been trying to get closer to the auction process,” says Jeremy Sell, a business development executive at Qtel. “Iran is on strategy for us.”

“We are interested in all neighbouring countries in Africa, the Middle East and the other emerging markets,” says a spokesman for Zain. “That includes Iran.”

While the firms are the only ones to have confirmed their interest in the licence so far, other major Gulf telecoms operators are expected to join them.

Etisalat, the UAE operator, visited Tehran at the beginning of the year following an invitation from the Communications & IT Ministry. In May, Mohammad Hassan Omran, chairman of Etisalat, said he wanted to bid for the third licence (MEED 16:5:08).

Etisalat declined to comment on whether it will now go ahead with a bid for the licence.

Tehran has previously said it expects Arab, European, Russian and Chinese operators to bid.

Iran is the Middle East’s second-largest mobile phone market. Its two existing operators, Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) and Irancell, a subsidiary of South Africa’s MTN, had 32.3 million mobile phone customers between them at the end of March.

Separately, Tehran is continuing with plans to sell further shares in TCI, following the listing of a 5 per cent stake in early August. A further 26 per cent stake is expected to be offered before the end of the year (MEED 15:8:08).