August 14, 2013 | Policy Brief

Iran and African Uranium

August 14, 2013 | Policy Brief

Iran and African Uranium

By Zachary Elkaim

The Zimbabwean government recently issued a denial of a Times of London story alleging that Zimbabwe made a deal to supply Iran with uranium. According to the story, Gift Chimanikire, the Zimbabwean Deputy Mining Minister, told the Times that a memorandum of understanding was signed last year. However, Chimanikire, a member of the opposition group MDC, claims he was misquoted, stating, “I never said such a silly thing. We are exploring and not mining.”

Zimbabwe’s Kanyemba mine is said to have uranium reserves of approximately 45,000 tons, but it lacks the capacity to export.  The uranium is mixed with other minerals, making extraction impossible without sizable investment. However, reports suggest the government has already promised China “special mining rights” and 42% of the mine is owned by the China Uranium Corporation.

A Chinese deal does not preclude Iran from penetrating the Zimbabwe uranium market, however. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in March 2012, “Iran has guns and expertise. Zimbabwe has uranium and diamonds. Both are international pariahs. It's a heaven-made match in a world of crushing international sanctions.” One leaked  report also indicates that former Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi met secretly with Zimbabwean officials in January 2011 “to resume negotiations … for the benefit of Iran's uranium procurement plan.” Iran may have offered up military supplies for raw uranium.

Iran has long sought uranium from Africa: In July 2006, a U.N. report had “no doubt” that a huge shipment of smuggled uranium uncovered by Tanzanian custom officials on route to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas originated in the Lubumbashi mines in the DRC. Ironically, these mines provided the uranium used by the U.S. to bomb Hiroshima.

A 2009 WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone notes that Iran was competing for the mining rights to recently discovered uranium deposits and cautions that “a back-door deal with the Iranians to mine the uranium in a location with little international community penetration and effective policing, could be easily and clandestinely managed, from extraction to exportation.”

Additionally, the Iran Foreign Investment Company still holds a 15% stake in the Rössing uranium mine in Namibia. Rössing’s majority shareholder, the British-Australian Rio Tinto Group, was reportedly advised by the U.N. that “sanctions do not prohibit the Government of Iran from retaining an existing interest in commercial uranium.”

Whether or not Zimbabwe has a deal with Iran in the works, Tehran is eyeing African uranium. The African continent, replete with areas of weak central authority, porous borders, economic woes, and corrupt governments remains an ideal environment for Iran’s nuclear procurement ambitions.

Zachary Elkaim is a researcher at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.