Is Iran looking to Africa to secure uranium ore?

Recently the United States pledged to provide more than $1 billion in aid to Africa before the end of the fiscal year. But another transaction is brewing, between Iran and Zimbabwe, that has received far less interest but could have a far larger impact on U.S. foreign policy.

According to intelligence reports recently leaked by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is looking to a number of African countries in an effort to secure uranium, a key mineral in building nuclear weapons.

It has been nearly a year since the United States and its allies strengthened economic sanctions against Iran in an effort to force the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Thus far, these measures have yielded mixed results. As Iran continues to expand its nuclear program, it will be seeking countries around the world that can provide it with additional uranium, since it doesn’t possess great quantities itself.

Naturally, the poorest and least-regulated countries that have this mineral will serve as the richest targets.

The United States and its allies must make clear to those countries that are considering providing Iran with uranium that doing so would have severe economic and diplomatic consequences.

One of the most effective ways to achieve nuclearization is relatively simple: obtaining ample supplies of enriched uranium. Normally, centrifuges that contain uranium are spun to extract uranium hexafluoride — also known as uranium ore or yellow cake — which can be used both as reactor fuel and for arming nuclear missiles. All intelligence seems to suggest that Iran doesn’t have significant domestic supplies of uranium. This ultimately means that unless Iran secures foreign supplies, its enrichment efforts will slow down.

Iran has started to scour the Earth in search of countries that possess uranium deposits, searching in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Recently, the Islamic Republic has made a full-court press in Africa in particular and Iranian engineers have reportedly mapped out all the uranium deposits on the continent to assist in assessing which countries are most likely to sell them the coveted mineral.

Iran has reportedly decided that Congo, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe are the countries with uranium that are most likely to do business with it. Iran appears to have targeted Zimbabwe as its most promising source of uranium.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Harare in April 2010 and, according to the media, he expressed personal interest in Zimbabwe’s uranium. Ahmadinejad has followed up with President Robert Mugabe but the talks have stalled over the most effective way of extracting Zimbabwe’s uranium without raising undue international attention.

While Zimbabwe has approximately 455,000 tons of uranium at Kanyemba, a site north of Harare, it isn’t near existing mining operations. Zimbabwe’s government is loath to start uranium mining, which would inevitably lead to additional punishing sanctions against the country. Both the United Nations and United States have a robust sanctions regime against the government of Mugabe, who has been in power for more than 30 years.

In recent months, there have been reports that Iran has secured the mining rights for Zimbabwe’s uranium. Zimbabwe’s minister of state for presidential affairs, Didymus Mutasa, reportedly signed the agreement in Tehran last year. In return for uranium, Harare is said to have secured oil and cash to help its economy.

While Mugabe has denied these claims, he has stated that Iran can apply for such privileges at any time.

Washington should closely monitor this connection between Iran and Zimbabwe and, if it determines that Iran is beginning to mine or secure uranium deposits from Harare, the U.S. government should engage in a full-court diplomatic press and employ a wide array of existing financial sanctions against companies and institutions that aid in Iran’s illicit efforts to obtain yellow cake.

Going forward, policymakers around the world will need to be vigilant in tracking Iran’s efforts to secure uranium.

Iran has yet to develop a nuclear weapon, but experts agree that sanctions have thus far only delayed its efforts, not quelled its ambitions. If the Islamic Republic succeeds in securing large quantities of uranium that can ultimately be converted into yellow cake, this would most likely be the nail in the coffin in the West’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.