An Iran-Zimbabwe Nuclear Axis

Robert Mugabe seems determined to export uranium ore to Iran. It will be hard for the intl community to stop him.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe continues to vex international policymakers and diplomats with his determination to export uranium ore to Iran in a lucrative exchange between global pariahs. A recent leaked intelligence report by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), revealed what many experts have long suspected and feared – a nuclear partnership between Tehran and Harare.

Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, defended his nation’s trade with Iran claiming, ‘Any country has the right to use peaceful nuclear energy based on international rules.’ US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley responded to Mumbengegwi’s remarks with ‘concern’ and noted that Zimbabwe is ‘bound by its commitments to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.’

Yet despite Crowley’s insistence that Zimbabwe will experience ‘ramifications’ for its intransigence, in practical terms there are few options left in the diplomatic toolkit for US officials. Zimbabwe already operates outside the realm of international obligations in most respects, its entrenched despotic regime working to immunize itself against international sanctions through marriages of convenience with partners such as Iran.

Yet while Iran’s emerging relationship with Zimbabwe is notable, it shouldn’t come as a shock to the international community. Last April, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made Harare the first stop in his trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Mugabe reciprocated shortly after with a state visit to Tehran in May 2010 to attend the G-15 summit (a group of developing nations from Asia, Africa and Latin America). In addition to these state visits, there have been a number of high-level trips and exchanges between Iranian diplomats and Zimbabwean mining officials.

Tehran continues to search for suppliers in order to sustain its nuclear programme, but is finding that the list of available vendors has dwindled significantly under the brunt of UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions. Leaked intelligence reports in 2009 revealed Iran’s failed attempts to clandestinely procure 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan.

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Potential sources in Africa also remain problematic. Niger has a considerable uranium supply, but has come under increased surveillance after the erroneous claims of ‘yellow cake’ shipments to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. South Africa, another source country (and a previous supplier of uranium to Iran in the early 1980s), has taken a decidedly strong stance against nuclear proliferation in light of its voluntary disarmament of its nuclear weapons programme.  

The leaking of the IAEA report is an attempt by the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) to regain some leverage in its negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme by further discolouring Tehran’s intentions and actions (criticism of Mugabe’s regime is a bonus). Whether this revelation will influence Iran’s calculus during discussions on its nuclear programme is questionable at best, but it definitely won’t be the last attempt to pressure the regime to change course.