Near the end of what seemed a super-busy and seamless six-month transition from spring to fall without the respite of a summer silly season, a lighter tabloid moment arrived last week. The government of Zimbabwe proclaimed that a revelation in the London Times of a secret uranium deal with Iran had been breathed into life by reporters whose poetic license spun out of control.

Thanks to chronologizing by Diane Barnes, it would appear that the essential facts in the case are these: Two days after the Times on August 8 interviewed Zimbabwe’s Deputy Minister of Mines, the paper asserted that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe had signed a secret uranium deal with Iran. Immediately thereafter, the government hotly denied the allegation, issued arrest warrants for two co-authors, and nabbed one of them. He then signed an affidavit, as Barnes recounted, stating that he had invented his share of the report.

The Backstory

Far more significant than the trials and tribulations of the Times is the fact that, after Iran’s uranium enrichment program at Natanz was revealed in 2002, a number of IAEA member states, chief of which is the United States, have systematically tried to prevent Iran from importing uranium-bearing minerals. Iran’s efforts to obtain materials that would qualify as potential secondary uranium sources have been global but the centerpiece is Iran’s humanitarian and commercial diplomacy in Africa. Last week’s distorted media allegations concerning Zimbabwe point to just one piece of that puzzle.

UNSC sanctions since 2006 ban UN member states from exporting uranium to Iran. But sanctions don’t bar mining firms from selling to Iran secondary uranium sources. Chief of these are phosphates–a subject the IAEA knows a lot about having since 2007 tried to account for all the uranium in Syria’s nuclear program.

Iran, it turns out, has in recent years tried to obtain phosphates from major producers strung out along the coast of northern and western Africa from Togo to Egypt. Western governments have responded with equal determination to isolate Iran diplomatically and commercially.

According to the World Nuclear Association, recovering uranium from phosphates is a business with an established track record globally, and about 20,000 tons of uranium have been recovered. The technology for extracting the uranium from phosphates is well-known, mature, and not considered sensitive.

Iran imported phosphates from Africa beginning in the 1970s, but since imposition of UNSC sanctions, Tehran has redoubled efforts to scour the continent for access to phosphates and other secondary uranium sources, such as chromium and copper, most recently this year in Tunisia, and apparently also in Sierra Leone. From Morocco, the world’s biggest phosphate exporter, Iran has hauled in phosphates worth up to $100 million per year through at least 2009. Informed by the IAEA’s judgment that the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is outfitted to extract uranium from phosphates, the U.S. during the late 2000s therefore urged Morocco to monitor and reduce its trade with Iran. In 2009, Morocco cut off diplomatic ties with Iran on the grounds that Iran was interfering in Morocco’s domestic affairs. More recently, Iran has sought commercial agreements with Togo’s phosphate industry. Iran’s long-standing connections with phosphate producers in Senegal however were scuttled in 2011 when Dakar cut links with Tehran over alleged Iranian assistance to armed rebels in southern Senegal.

Beginning around 2005 the U.S. began obtaining information suggesting that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire, may have abetted or tolerated illegal uranium mining in that country, and that uranium-bearing ores mined in the DRC may have been dispatched to Iran through intermediaries in Tanzania. The U.S. informed the IAEA of these findings. Separately, the U.S. and other states have raised Iran’s quest for primary and secondary uranium sources with a panoply of other African states. These discussions certainly alerted Zimbabwe. But the U.S. brought virtually all sub-Saharan governments into the information loop.

Paragraph 34

What do the rules say about countries exporting uranium-bearing ores to Iran? As Barnes reported out this week:

[N]either Iran nor Zimbabwe is legally obligated to keep international monitors apprised of any trade in unrefined uranium ore, according to Olli Heinonen, a former top monitoring official for the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.N. watchdog organization is responsible for ensuring that nuclear assets under its watch are not diverted for military use.“If Iran recovers uranium from the ore, it is obliged to report it only when it has reached the purity suitable for fuel fabrication or enrichment,” Heinonen said.

Iran is therefore free to import uranium-bearing ores, and regardless of sanctions Iran’s foreign partners may legally export uranium-containing minerals to Iran not declared as uranium-bearing material. In theory, a problem arises–for Iran, not the exporters–only if and when Iran thereafter elects to extract the uranium and process it into purified oxide or fluoride compounds.

Behind this understanding looms Paragraph 34 of Infcirc/153, the model agreement for NPT safeguards agreements. It says:

When any material containing uranium or thorium which has not reached the stage of the nuclear fuel cycle described in sub‐paragraph (c) below is directly or indirectly exported to a non‐nuclear weapons State, the State shall inform the Agency of its quantity, composition and destination, unless the material is exported specifically for non‐nuclear purpose.

Some IAEA member state governments are not happy with this state of affairs. When the Australian mega-miner BHP Billiton Ltd. a few years back planned to export semi-processed copper concentrates with significant uranium content to China, Canberra raised the matter with Beijing, and the Chinese government swiftly provided safeguards arrangements for the uranium it recovered. But Australia had become sensitized to the potential for abuse of Paragraph 34 by other, less scrupulous, parties.

Leading Western uranium producing countries with CSAs–such as Australia and Canada–routinely report their exports under Paragraph 34. Under the Additional Protocol, which spells out the IAEA’s right of access to information from states with an AP about uranium mining and processing, Australia and Canada routinely afford the IAEA complementary access to facilities and information on mining activities to demonstrate that they are reporting findings to the Department of Safeguards–including under Paragraph 34.

But some countries with CSAs are lax, and those without CSAs (let alone an AP) as a matter of course don’t track secondary uranium sources or report uranium exports to the IAEA at all since they are under no legal obligation.

Even if a state has a CSA and an AP in force, that’s no guarantee that that state will cooperate with the IAEA. In one such case where the IAEA pursued information suggesting that one government south of the Sahara didn’t effectively control its uranium industry, that country’s mining officials told the Department of Safeguards, in so many words, to do this.