Iran's Secret Uranium Deal with Zimbabwe
On April 22, the Drudge Report linked to an article about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meeting with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. It failed to cause a fuss, but it tells us a lot about why General David Petraeus believes that Iran’s nuclear program has been delayed and we have at least until the end of the year before it gets the bomb.
Iran secretly agreed last month to provide Zimbabwe with oil in return for being given access to its uranium ore, the basic material that must be enriched in order to create the fuel for a nuclear bomb. Iranian scientists have been studying the African nation’s deposits for over a year to prepare for mining. The Iranian regime may have enriched some of its uranium to 20 percent, but they will still need a lot of uranium ore to create a nuclear arsenal. This latest cooperation with Zimbabwe confirms reports that this is where the Iranians are having trouble.
In January of last year, it was reported that Iran could run out of uranium in months, with the IAEA believing Iran had already converted about 70 percent of its stockpile into uranium hexafluoride gas. Many of the centrifuges being used to enrich the uranium are defective, resulting in only half of the 8,700 at the Natanz site being used last year. The Iranians were unable to replace the machines faster than they were breaking, resulting in the number of operating centrifuges dropping from 5,000 in May to 3,900 in November. The ones that did work only produced half of the enriched uranium that they should. Of course, the possibility remains that this is an act of deception.
David Ignatius brought attention to an article in October about how “impurities” in Iran’s uranium were damaging its centrifuges. This, he suspected, may explain why Iran seemed open at the time to having other countries enrich its uranium and ship it back, as that would cleanse that stock of the contamination. Western attempts to sabotage the nuclear program, particularly by providing the Iranians with defective equipment, appear to have been effective.
This is almost certainly the reason for General Petraeus’ statement and the recent bro-love between Mugabe and Ahmadinejad. A secret Israeli report said last May that Iran was also getting uranium from Venezuela and Bolivia. The Iranians and Venezuelans have talked about nuclear cooperation, and Chavez has agreed to allow Iran to explore for uranium in its Roraima Basin region. Venezuela’s mining minister says that Iran has already conducted surveys and testing and determined that the potential exists for the country to have uranium reserves, but it would take three years to certify the results. The news report says that only partial certification is needed for a project to begin.
Uranium could also be shipped from Burma or North Korea. It’s likely that after Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, which should be seen as an extension of Iran’s own program, 45 tons of uranium sent by North Korea was transferred to Iran. Towards the end of last year, an intelligence report was written saying that Iran was in the final stages of negotiating with officials in Kazakhstan to buy 1,350 tons of purified uranium for $450 million. Iran is also increasing production at its uranium mine near Bandar Abbas, a site which the regime is refusing to give inspectors access to. The site has the potential to provide enough uranium for two nuclear bombs per year.
There are other reasons that the Iranian nuclear program has slowed down besides the need for more uranium. The use of the black market to provide the Iranians with faulty equipment is only the beginning of the covert efforts. Israel's Mossad is suspected of being behind the deaths of numerous nuclear scientists. Israel has also used cyber warfare, possibly including the insertion of viruses into computer systems or even remotely causing explosions. When Iran executed a man it believe acted as an Israeli spy in providing them communications equipment that had been tampered with, it said he had “led to the defeat of the project with irreversible damage.”
The numerous defections of important personnel surely have hampered the program as well. In 2007, Deputy Defense Minister Ali-Reza Asgari switched sides. Last year, a nuclear scientist named Shahram Amiri defected and came to the U.S. A second unidentified scientist is thought to have defected around the same time. Most recently, a nuclear scientist is seeking asylum in Israel.
It is also possible that Iran is slowing down its program, hoping to avoid sanctions until it has boosted its refining capacity. The country’s heavy reliance upon imports of petroleum-based products like gasoline is a major vulnerability. Iran is currently building seven more refineries and is expanding ten current facilities, enabling it to produce twice as much gasoline in 2012. The regime may believe it's worth moving a step slower so as to not spur the international community into action as they work to decrease this weakness.
The world should not take comfort in the fact that the Iranian-Zimbabwean agreement indicates that Iran’s nuclear program is facing obstacles. We are lucky that time has been bought, but that time is still short and the obstacles are far from insurmountable. Iran's capabilities may not be as efficient as the country would like, but Iran still does have enough uranium for a nuclear weapon and the capacity to enrich it to bomb-grade, albeit at a much slower pace. A nuclear-armed Iran remains within sight.