Zimbabwe is coming to Iran’s rescue by helping it with one of the main obstacles in its nuclear program: A lack of raw uranium. The Zimbabwean Foreign Minister has confirmed that his country is working on a deal to allow its uranium to be extracted by Iran for its nuclear program.
This partnership was a long time in the making. The African dictatorship denied reports in April 2010 that it had secretly agreed to let Iran mine its uranium deposits in return for a supply of oil, but the denials did not say that a deal wasn’t in the works. The Zimbabwean Foreign Minister’s admission may have been provoked after an intelligence report from a country belonging to the International Atomic Energy Organization was leaked to the press that said the Iranian Foreign Minister had held a secret meeting with top officials in Zimbabwe about a uranium deal. It also said that Iran was secretly looking at up to a dozen countries to potentially retrieve the metal from.
In January 2009, it was reported that Iran could run out of its raw uranium stockpile within months. The IAEA said that 70 percent of the uranium had been converted into uranium hexafluoride gas, the step before insertion into the centrifuges for enrichment. According to nuclear expert David Albright, the Iranians do have enough uranium gas for up to 35 nuclear weapons and today has enough enriched uranium for least two nuclear bombs, but much more is needed to sustain the Isfahan conversion site, the Arak heavy water plant and the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
About 200 tons of uranium is needed to operate a single 1,000 megawatt power station every single year and Iran has declared its intention to build 20 of them. The Iranians have increased production at its mine near Bandar Abbas but it is only processing about 21 tons per year and the site at Ardakan can only provide 50 more tons per year. The Bandar Abbas site, which is off-limits to inspectors, can supply enough uranium for two nukes per year but its deposits are said to be of poor quality and are not nearly large enough to accommodate an energy program.
Iran must acquire uranium abroad in order to keep its nuclear program going and Zimbabwe is able and willing to help. An Israeli intelligence report in May 2009 said that Iran was going to Bolivia and Venezuela for help. In September 2009, Venezuela admitted that it is allowing Iran to survey its deposits and Chavez has talked about creating a “nuclear village” in his country with Iran. It has been estimated that Venezuela is home to 50,000 tons of uranium, some of which may be of high quality.
Burma and North Korea are two other candidates for Iran. The North Koreans have had no qualms about providing Iran with WMD technology and it’s been reported that 45 tons of North Korean uranium went from Syria to Iran after the Israelis bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007. Burma also is working on a nuclear weapons program and has uranium deposits. One Burmese defector claims that Burma supplied Iran with a sample of its uranium in February 2004.
Iran also is trying to get uranium from the former Soviet Union. In late 2009, an intelligence report said that Kazakhstan was about to sell 1,350 tons of purified uranium to Iran for $450 million. Both sides denied the report. The regime is looking elsewhere in Africa besides Zimbabwe. In 2005, a shipment of uranium-239 to Iran from the Congo was intercepted by Tanzania. A United Nations report claims that in 2006, Iran began arming terrorists in Somalia, presumably al-Shabaab, to try to get its hands on the country’s uranium.
At this stage, Iran has enough uranium for at least two nuclear weapons but not nearly enough to sustain a long-term nuclear program for civilian purposes.. There are several reasons as to why Iran has not decided to use its current stockpile to build nuclear weapons. David Ignatius proposed an interesting one in October 2009, writing that technical difficulties may prevent Iran from enriching its uranium to the levels required for a weapon.
The conversion plant at Isfahan has failed to remove all of the impurities in the uranium that would damage its centrifuges once enrichment went above a certain level. “The contaminated fuel it has produced so far would be all but useless for nuclear weapons. To make enough fuel for a bomb, Iran might have to start over—this time avoiding the impurities,” he wrote. The equipment for the site was acquired on the black market, raising suspicion that it was deliberately sold to Iran by hostile intelligence services. It is unknown how much of the uranium has not been cleansed or if the equipment at Isfahan has been fixed or replaced.
Reza Kahlili, a former member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and author of A Time to Betray, told FrontPage that Iran needs to acquire lots of uranium because the regime wants to possess an arsenal, not just a few weapons. He also said that Iran is currently focused on working with North Korea to fit a bomb onto a warhead and that sources in Iran have told him that the regime is funding a third North Korean nuclear test.
“You have to look at the Iranian nuclear program in conjunction with their missile program. Their intention is to have a massive arsenal. Iran right now has over 1000 missiles and continuing to expand on that program,” he said.
The Iranians will need to keep looking for sources of uranium to keep their nuclear program operational if it wants to continue having a cover for making bombs and maintain the ability to produce them, especially if a large arsenal is desired. The International Institute of Strategic Studies believes that if Iran uses its Pakistani plans it will take one year and seven months away from making a weapon once the decision is made. A less likely method called “batch enrichment” could give them a bomb in less than a year. A minimum of an additional four months is needed to then place the bomb on a warhead if there are no technical barriers.
If the West can cut Iran’s access to outside uranium, it will significantly slow down Iran’s nuclear program and make it very difficult to expand the infrastructure. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is going to require help from friends. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of countries willing to give Iran the uranium it needs to threaten their common enemies in the West.