IRAN has struck a secret deal with Zimbabwe to mine its untapped uranium reserves to secure raw material for its expanding nuclear program.
The agreement was sealed during a visit to Tehran last month by Minister of State Didymus Mutasa, according to a government source in Zimbabwe.
In return for supplying oil, which Zimbabwe desperately needs to keep its faltering economy moving, Iran has been promised access to potentially huge deposits of uranium ore. Uranium can be converted into the basic fuel for nuclear power or enriched to make a bomb.
The disclosure came after Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Zimbabwe last week in a show of support for Mr Mugabe.
At a lavish official dinner in his honour on Thursday evening, Mr Ahmadinejad attacked what he termed ”expansionist countries” for exerting ”satanic pressures on the people of Zimbabwe”.
Mr Mugabe said both Zimbabwe and Iran were targeted by the West because they wanted to manage their own resources.
”We remain resolute in defending Zimbabwe’s right to exercise its sovereignty over its natural resources. We have equally supported Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy as enshrined in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty,” he said.
The uranium deal will heighten fears in the West that Iran is stepping up its nuclear program, which intelligence agencies believe is intended to lead to the development of nuclear weapons in the near future.
Iran maintains that its efforts are aimed solely at providing energy.
The United Nations Security Council is considering imposing harsher sanctions because Iran refuses to allow proper monitoring of nuclear sites.
The Zimbabwe government source said: ”The uranium deal is the culmination of a lot of work dating back to 2007 when Mr Mugabe visited Tehran in search of fuel. Now Iran is beginning to reap the benefits.”
A senior official at the Iranian embassy in Harare confirmed that Tehran had been offered the uranium rights.
”After a lot of diplomatic work and understanding, we have received reports of a deal having been made for Iran to mine not only uranium, but also other metals,” he said.
The pact seems certain to place Iran under even greater scrutiny by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
”If Zimbabwe and Iran were to announce a deal, then I am sure it is something the IAEA would be very interested in,” said a source at the nuclear watchdog.
Any deal to supply Iran is likely to put Zimbabwe in breach of a UN sanctions resolution on Tehran passed in December 2006.
Mr Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, insisted that mining rights had not yet been finalised, but he defended Iran’s right to apply for them.
The extent of Zimbabwe’s uranium reserves is uncertain, although some metallurgists believe that they may be quite large. Initial exploration has indicated there are an estimated 450,000 tonnes of uranium ore with some 20,000 tonnes of extractable uranium.
David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based think tank, said Iran’s leaders were certainly looking for ways to get access to uranium. But they risked serious consequences if they sought to import the materials.