WASHINGTON -- An alleged clandestine deal in which Zimbabwe might sell sensitive nuclear material to Iran could revive debate over the Persian Gulf nation's ability to import uranium ore, despite international sanctions.
Zimbabwe's government took pains last week to deny allegations that it was secretly preparing to supply Iran with unrefined uranium, going so far as to hunt down a journalist who had reported the story and to demand a confession that he had fabricated substantiating comments from a government official.
Some analysts, though, say the southern African nation has parsed its denials, leaving open the possibility of backtracking later on, should it ever decide to sell uranium ore to the suspected nuclear arms aspirant.
The Times of London on Aug. 10 quoted a senior official in Zimbabwe's mining ministry describing a memorandum of understanding "to export uranium to the Iranians."
The article's headline describes the understanding as a "secret deal." Paraphrasing the official, the newspaper said the arrangement was known by "only a handful of people at the top of Zimbabwe's government."
If true, the planned transfer of the sensitive material could potentially violate international sanctions against Iran. Washington and its allies contend the Persian Gulf nation has flouted its U.N. atomic safeguards agreement and previously hidden military efforts aimed at ultimately developing nuclear warheads.
The report's publication prompted a scramble by President Robert Mugabe's government to provide an explanation. Deputy Mines and Mining Development Minister Gift Chimanikire, the reported source of the revelation, accused the British newspaper of misrepresenting his comments in an Aug. 8 interview.
Journalist Jerome Starkey "thought of selling his paper by being untruthful," Chimanikire told Zimbabwe's Sunday Mail newspaper. Separately, Mugabe's minister for mines and mining development suggested that the Times reporter's conversation with his deputy had taken place "in a dream."
Zimbabwean authorities then reportedly went a step further, arresting the article's co-author -- veteran correspondent Jan Raath -- and compelling him on Thursday to state in an affidavit that he had falsified his contribution to the story.
Starkey, who tweeted last Monday that he was in Kenya, a day earlier decried Zimbabwe's search for the journalists as a "manhunt." With its forceful response, the Mugabe government appeared to be underscoring its denial that one of its officials had told them about a backroom uranium agreement with Tehran, Starkey indicated on Friday in response to a question.
Iran could refine raw uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants and nonmilitary research reactors, but the United States and other Western countries fear the Persian Gulf state wants to enrich the material to high purities for possible use in nuclear weapons.
The U.N. Security Council threatens harsh economic sanctions against any country found to sell uranium to Iran, except in pre-made nuclear power plant fuel rods.
However, neither Iran nor Zimbabwe is legally obligated to keep international monitors apprised of any trade in unrefined uranium ore, according to Olli Heinonen, a former top monitoring official for the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.N. watchdog organization is responsible for ensuring that nuclear assets under its watch are not diverted for military use.
"If Iran recovers uranium from the ore, it is obliged to report it only when it has reached the purity suitable for fuel fabrication or enrichment," Heinonen, now a senior fellow with Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Iran is now known in the 1990s to have discreetly imported uranium in forms it was supposed to declare, and its history of carrying out clandestine nuclear energy activities has created longstanding international worries that some amount of Iranian atomic work might still be going unreported to the U.N. organization.
In 2003, Tehran disputed the agency's contention that it was obligated to report a different form of uranium it had acquired from abroad 12 years earlier.
Iran has long denied harboring nuclear-bomb ambitions and insists it needs raw uranium to feed its legitimate atomic activities. Tehran described plans to build new research reactors when it announced the launch of two new domestic uranium mines in April. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear expert Mark Hibbs, speaking to GSN by telephone from Berlin, noted that Iranian officials foresee a shortfall from the country's domestic stocks as it expands its atomic energy program.
Speaking to Bloomberg within hours of the Times article's publication, Chimanikire said Zimbabwe had reached a broad "mineral trading" agreement with Iran that does not specify the export of uranium. He added, though, that his country is still working out how much uranium it possesses, and has yet to begin providing the substance "to anyone at all."
An expert in African economics and security said the Mugabe government carefully qualified its rebuttal of the Times article. Zimbabwe last week said its uranium resources were still untapped, and the country has "never issued any [mining] license to any Iranian company."
Still, the African nation "has been courting potential investors for its mineral deposits -- including uranium -- for some time," Raymond Gilpin, dean of the National Defense University's Africa Center for Strategic Studies," told Global Security Newswire in an e-mail.
In early 2011, the country formally welcomed Tehran to access its uranium ore.
"Zimbabwe holds rich resources, but the problem we face is lack of budget, finance and required technical equipment to take the very rich resources out and use them," Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi said at the time.
One Chinese company recently ruled out mining Zimbabwe's uranium after deeming its deposits too small to be commercially worthwhile, Gilpin said. However, "a less risk-averse customer might consider investing in the deposits," he said.
Tehran might "see Zimbabwe as a possible partner in a secret venture simply from the point of view that Mugabe faces diplomatic pressure from some of the same Western countries that are now sanctioning Iran," Hibbs said.
A Clinton-era U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe said that poor economic policies and election practices have kept Mugabe's government "in the international doghouse" for years.
Any Zimbabwean uranium shipments to Iran would most likely be detected at some point, landing Harare in an even "deeper international hole," said Johnnie Carson, who stepped down in March from a four-year stint heading the U.S. State Department's African Affairs Bureau.
The recent Times article reportedly prompted the State Department to caution Mugabe's government against selling uranium to Iran, warning that such sales could violate a 7-year-old U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution. That measure could allow a Security Council committee to impose trade restrictions and financial penalties on "persons or entities" found to be selling uranium ore to Iran.
However, international differences over sanctions enforcement could bode poorly for that body's future ability to act on potential violations, Patrick Clawson, research director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, indicated by e-mail.
In addition, global condemnation has not always been enough in the past to deter Zimbabwe from engaging in illicit mineral dealings, according to Peter Hain, a former Africa minister for the British Foreign Office.
"Zimbabwe's precious metals trade needs to be regulated properly," the Labor Party lawmaker said in a phone interview from the United Kingdom. He said Zimbabwe continues to traffic in domestically mined "blood diamonds," even though the United Nations denounced such trade years ago.
"I'm very concerned that they could easily export the uranium to Iran, lifting two fingers at the international community," he said, referring to the British equivalent of a middle-digit insult in the United States.
Correction: An earlier version of this article should have stated that Zimbabwe is located in southern Africa.