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Allegations that Zimbabwe has signed deal to supply uranium to Iran

Recent news reports have alleged that Zimbabwe has signed a memorandum of understanding to supply Uranium to Iran. These reports caused concern across the international community given current efforts to address Iran’s prohibited nuclear activities. The reports were subsequently denied by the Zimbabwe government.

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This article considers some of the related legal and practical issues:

  •     From where has Iran procured its uranium?
  •     Could Zimbabwe provide Iran with uranium?
  •     Is the supply of uranium to Iran prohibited under sanctions?

New Allegations Re-raise Old Concerns

Recent news reports have alleged that Zimbabwe has signed a memorandum of understanding to supply Uranium to Iran.[1] The Zimbabwean government has responded to these allegations by describing them as ‘a malicious and blatant lie’ and stating that Zimbabwe has never ‘issued any [presumably mining] license to any Iranian company’.[2]

The Deputy Mining Minister went further to highlight that the state of Zimbabwe’s uranium mining industry mean that such a deal was not possible at this stage. He elaborated, responding to questions, that Zimbabwe was ‘not selling or marketing any uranium to anyone at all, so we cannot talk of shipments to anyone’, let alone Iran.[3]

It is not the first time that concerns of such a deal have been raised in the press. In 2011, concerns regarding a deal were linked by the US State Department to Zimbabwe’s attitude to sanctions on Iran. The then Foreign Minister had allegedly expressed a disbelief in the legitimacy of sanctions. A State Department spokes person noted, that ‘the foreign minister of Zimbabwe is entitled to his opinion but the government of Zimbabwe is still bound by its commitments to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions’.[4]

Previous Allegations

In 2010, The Telegraph reported that Zimbabwe had struck a deal with Iran to supply uranium in exchange for oil.[5] The article quotes an Iranian diplomat in Harare as confirming that a deal had been made: ‘after a lot of diplomatic work and understanding, we have received reports of a deal having been made for Iran to mine not only uranium but also other metals’.

A 2011 internal IAEA report, leaked to the press, alleged that Iran was having difficulty obtaining a supply of Uranium to sustain its nuclear activities. The report alleges that in 2010, the Iranian Foreign Minister took part in secret meetings with key figures in Zimbabwe.[6] The Associated Press allege that the IAEA report stated that this meeting was ‘to resume negotiations . . . for the benefit of Iran’s uranium procurement plan’.[7] Apparently, this followed ‘work carried out by Iranian engineers to map out uranium deposits in Africa and assess the amount of uranium they contain’.

Iran’s Demand, Zimbabwe’s Supply?

Iran’s uranium largely came from South Africa during the 1970s long before international sanctions were put into place and efforts made to monitor Iranian procurement. Iran is said to have procured around 600 tonnes.[8] Under safeguards, Iran must report certain details to the IAEA. Irans Safeguards Agreement article 34b notes that ‘when any material containing uranium or thorium which has not reached the stage of the nuclear fuel cycle described in paragraph (c) is imported, the Government of Iran shall inform the Agency of its quantity and composition, unless the material is imported for specifically non-nuclear purposes’.[9]

A 2009 report suggested that due to the absence of other reported imports and Iran’s use of existing stocks in its enrichment activities, Iran was running low on uranium.[10] Iran’s efforts to indigenously produce uranium have been slow to get off the ground. Iran has been seeking to indigenously mine and process uranium ore to make ‘yellow cake’, which can be converted to uranium hexafluoride and enriched in its centrifuge enrichment plants. The country has several uranium mines, and allegedly opened two more in April 2013.[11] It was only in 2010, that Iran announced that it had produced its first indigenously refined yellowcake.[12] However, questions have been asked about the quality of reserves and the cost – allegedly several times the market price – of the yellowcake produced.[13]

While Iran may need yellowcake, Zimbabwe clearly has uranium reserves. However, the size and significance of these reserves is disputed. Estimates vary due to the tense political climate restricting open access to prospectors, as well as differing definitions of what could be considered cost effective. The costs of extracting uranium, as with any raw material which is taken from deep underground, can vary hugely from location to location.

Press reporting regarding Zimbabwe’s reserves have been particularly poor. Reports vary from 455,000 tons[14], or equivalent to Canada’s reserves (the world’s fourth largest)[15] to ‘over 20,000’ extractable tonnes.[16] However, other estimates are much lower. A 2012 paper by the South African Institute for International Affairs lists Zimbabwe as having just 1,400 tonnes at less than $260/kg, while Iran is said to have larger reserves of 2,100 tonnes at this price.[17]

Merely having uranium reserves clearly does not make Zimbabwe a potential supplier. Uranium ore needs to be milled to turn it into yellowcake. Depending on the quality of the ore, 1 kg of yellowcake can be extracted from somewhere between 500 and 5,000kg of ore.[18] This means that any economical extraction operation would need to be based close to a milling facility. There is no credible evidence to suggest that Zimbabwe has even started mining uranium, let alone milling it. The Deputy Mining Minister has even noted that ‘there have been no sightings of uranium to justify mining’.[19]

Sanctions on Iran

UN sanctions on Iran do not explicitly prohibit the import of uranium ore or yellowcake. Resolution 1929 (2010) prohibits Iran’s import of goods listed in the NSG Guidelines part 1 (‘trigger list’) and 2 (‘dual-use list’), neither of which include uranium in any form. However, since UNSCR 1737 was passed in 2006, Iran’s import of ‘items, materials, equipment, goods and technology’ which could ‘contribute to enrichment-related, or reprocessing, or heavy water-related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems’ has been prohibited.[20] This would include uranium ore and yellowcake which would be likely be deemed to fall into this category by the Security Council or the Iran sanctions committee.

More directly relevant to the supply of uranium, UNSCR 1929 (2010) contains prohibition on Iranian activities relating to the acquisition of interests in uranium mining activities. The resolution reads:

Decides that Iran shall not acquire an interest in any commercial activity in another State involving uranium mining, production or use of nuclear materials and technology as listed in INFCIRC/254/Rev.9/Part 1, in particular uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, all heavy-water activities or technology related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and further decides that all States shall prohibit such investment in territories under their jurisdiction by Iran, its nationals, and entities incorporated in Iran or subject to its jurisdiction, or by persons or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, or by entities owned or controlled by them;[21]

Following the passage of the resolution in 2010, this caused debate amongst the owners of Rossing Uranium Ltd., a firm which operates one of the world’s largest uranium mines in Namibia. Iran has owned a 15% share in the mine since 1975. While the resolution was clear that Iran was prohibited from acquiring new interests, it was less clear on existing interests.

In 2010, a company spokesperson noted that ‘Rossing Uranium Limited is in consultation with the Government of Namibia to find a solution to deal with the U.N. Resolution requirements and chart the way forward…The matter is also one of utmost importance to the shareholders of Rossing Uranium Limited, and is the subject of ongoing discussion among them’.[22] Rio Tinto, owner of 69% of the Rossing Mine, announced later in 2010 that Iran could retain its share, noting that Iran ‘does not gain access to any nuclear technology through its investments…It has no uranium product off-take rights and all dividend payments have been frozen’.[23]

Conclusions

There are obviously concerns regarding Iran’s efforts to procure Uranium for use in its nuclear programme. At first glance, Zimbabwe may seem to be an obvious source, having uranium reserves, and being one of the few countries with good relations with Iran. However, the potential for Zimbabwe’s supply are limited in two main ways: practically, Zimbabwe’ reserves are not actually that extensive (possibly smaller that Iran’s). There is also nothing in open sources to suggest that Zimbabwe has started to undertake extraction and processing of uranium ore which would be necessary for economical export.

Second, UN sanctions would likely legally prohibit the transfer of uranium. Uranium is likely to be deemed by the Security Council or the Committee to ‘contribute to enrichment-related, or reprocessing, or heavy water-related activities’.[24] UN sanctions have explicitly sought to constrain Iran’s activities in the Uranium area in other ways, including by preventing Iran’s acquisition of interests in mining activities.[25]

[1] ‘Zimbabwe strikes deal to sell uranium to Iran’, The Telegraph, 10 August 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/10234749/Zimbabwe-strikes-deal-to-sell-uranium-to-Iran-according-to-report.html.

[2] Zimbabwe Mining Ministry says no deal signed on uranium for Iran’s nuclear program’, Washington Post, 11 August 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-11/world/41300145_1_uranium-mining-state-radio.

[3] Godfrey Marawanyika & Kevin Crowley, ‘Zimbabwe Says Uranium at Exploration Stage, No Iran Trade Seen’, Bloomberg, 10 August 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-08-10/zimbabwe-says-uranium-at-exploration-stage-no-iran-trade-seen.html.

[4] Matthew Leem ‘US warns Zimbabwe over Iran nuke cooperation’, Washington Post, 8 March 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/08/AR2011030803303.html.

[5] Itai Mushekwe & Harriet Alexander, ‘Iran Strikes secret nuclear mining deal with Zimbabwe’s Mugabe regime’, The Telegraph, 24 April 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/7628750/Iran-strikes-secret-nuclear-mining-deal-with-Zimbabwes-Mugabe-regime.html.

[6] ‘Iran hunts for uranium – IAEA report’, The Voice of Russia, 24 February 2011, http://voiceofrussia.com/2011/02/24/46028562/.

[7] ‘Iran Broadens Search for Raw Uranium: Intel’, Global Security Newswire, 24 February 2011, http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/iran-broadens-search-for-raw-uranium-intel/.

[8] David Albright, Jacqueline Shire & Paul Brannan, ‘Is Iran Running Out of Yellowcake?’ ISIS Report, February 2009, http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/Iran_Yellowcake.pdf.

[9] ‘Agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’, INFCIRC/214, 13 September 1974, http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/Others/infcirc214.pdf.

[10] David Albright, Jacqueline Shire & Paul Brannan, ‘Is Iran Running Out of Yellowcake?’ ISIS Report, February 2009, http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/Iran_Yellowcake.pdf.

[11] Yeganeh Torbati and Fredrik Dahl, ‘Iran announces uranium mining after nuclear talks fail’, Reuters, 9 April 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/09/us-iran-nuclear-idUSBRE93804L20130409.

[12] ‘Iran says it has produced its first yellowcake uranium’, Voice of America, 4 December 2010, http://www.voanews.com/content/iran-produces-first-domestically-produced-uranium-yellowcake-111343954/131842.html.

[13] Yeganeh Torbati and Fredrik Dahl, ‘Iran announces uranium mining after nuclear talks fail’, Reuters, 9 April 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/09/us-iran-nuclear-idUSBRE93804L20130409.

[14] Aislinn Laing, ‘Zimbabwe to Sell Uranium to Iran’ The Telegraph, 6 March 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/8364666/Zimbabwe-to-sell-uranium-to-Iran.html.

[15] ‘Supply of Uranium’, World Nuclear Association, August 2012, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Uranium-Resources/Supply-of-Uranium/.

[16] ‘US Warns Zimbabwe over Iran Uranium plan’, New Zimbabwe, 9 March 2011, http://www.newzimbabwe.com/news-4637-US%20warns%20Zim%20over%20uranium%20plan/news.aspx.

[17] Nicholas Dasnois, ‘Uranium Mining in Africa: A continent at the Centre of the Global Nuclear Renaisance’, SAIIA Occasional Paper, September 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za/doc_download/26-uranium-mining-in-africa-a-continent-at-the-centre-of-a-global-nuclear-renaissance.

[18] D C Seidel, ‘Extracting uranium from its ores’, IAEA Bulletin, vol.23, no.2, http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull232/23204882428.pdf.

[19] Godfrey Marawanyika & Kevin Crowley, ‘Zimbabwe Says Uranium at Exploration Stage, No Iran Trade Seen’, Reuters, 10 August 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-08-10/zimbabwe-says-uranium-at-exploration-stage-no-iran-trade-seen.html.

[20] UN Security Council, UNSCR 1737 (2006)

[21] UN Security Council, UNSCR 1929 (2010), article 7.

[22] ‘Namibian uranium mine mulls action on Iran stake’, Reuters, 18 October 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/10/18/iran-nuclear-rossing-idUSN1810113720101018.

[23] Jesse Riseborough, ‘Iran Allowed to Keep 15% Stake in Namibia’s Rossing uranium Mine, Rio Says’, Bloomberg, 27 October 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-27/iran-allowed-to-keep-15-stake-in-namibia-s-rossing-uranium-mine-rio-says.html.

[24] UN Security Council, UNSCR 1737 (2006)

[25] UN Security Council, UNSCR 1929 (2010), article 7.


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