Alleged Iranian Uranium Deal With Zimbabwe May Revive Sanctions Debate

Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
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Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 21, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

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.

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