Is Iran Running Out of Uranium?

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AFP / Getty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium-enrichment facilities in April 2008

Western governments may be scrambling to push through tougher international sanctions against Iran, but the Islamic Republic's nuclear program may be facing a more immediate hurdle: replenishing its dwindling uranium stocks.

Iran's need to find fresh supplies of raw uranium is increasingly urgent, according to some reports. That may be one reason for the bear hug President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe last Thursday, April 22, when the Iranian leader landed in Harare on the first leg of an African trip. An anonymous Zimbabwean government source told Britain's Telegraph newspaper last Friday that his country's Minister of Presidential Affairs, Didymus Mutasa, had made a secret deal with Iran last month during a visit to Tehran, under which the Iranians would provide the sanctions-battered southern African country with critically needed oil supplies in exchange for what he called "the exclusive uranium rights" in Zimbabwe.

Neither Iran nor Zimbabwe has confirmed the uranium deal, which could violate U.N. sanctions, and on Monday an official from Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, the minority partner in the coalition government, denied the report, insisting that "no such agreement was signed." Zimbabwe is believed to have large uranium deposits, discovered during the 1970s, which have never been mined.

Iran's uranium stockpile is 30 years old, dating to the early 1980s, when South Africa sold it about 531 tons of yellowcake, the powder produced from raw uranium dug from the ground that is enriched to create nuclear-reactor fuel (or, potentially, bomb material). Of that supply, the country has only "a relatively small stock" left, according to a report issued last December by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, which tracks Iran's nuclear industry. Much of Iran's yellowcake has been refined into uranium hexafluoride, which is kept under scrutiny by inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. Iran's current stockpile of low-enriched uranium, if enriched to weapons grade — a process that would require Iran to kick out the inspectors and thereby unambiguously declare its intentions — would be enough to create a single nuclear bomb. But it is a lot less than Iran needs to fuel a nuclear reactor for energy purposes, let alone build several nuclear weapons to constitute a credible nuclear arsenal.

Iran says its purpose in enriching uranium is simply to create fuel for a nuclear reactor to provide electricity, although Western powers doubt that its intentions are entirely benign. Still, whatever the program's purpose, it is potentially hobbled without a secure supply of uranium. "We know that they are short [of uranium] for a nuclear energy program," says David Albright, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq and president of ISIS. "If you don't have uranium, you don't have anything."

The push for new sanctions has consumed so much of the diplomatic focus on Iran in recent months that few officials have paid much attention to Tehran's quest for new uranium stocks, says Cliff Kupchan, Iran analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, who believes that Iran is "almost out of yellowcake."

While Western officials might not be paying attention to dwindling uranium supplies, Iranian officials are working hard to find new sources of the essential mineral. Iran owns a small stake in the giant Rossing uranium mine in Namibia but under current sanctions is forbidden from importing any of its product.

Last November, an IAEA intelligence report, leaked to the Associated Press, said Iran was close to buying 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan — one of the world's biggest uranium producers — for $450 million, in "a deal to be signed soon." That deal appears to have been scuttled after the report became public. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev met privately with President Obama in Washington while attending the White House nuclear summit on April 11; he agreed to allow U.S. military planes to fly over the huge former Soviet republic in order to resupply troops in Afghanistan and to work together on nonproliferation.

That suggests Iran might need to shop elsewhere than Kazakhstan for uranium. If Zimbabwean officials opt to trade uranium reserves for Iranian oil, U.S. officials will certainly take notice, says Kupchan, who adds, "This is the kind of deal that the U.S. is going to have its sensors on high for."