Gift Chimanikire, the Zimbabwean Deputy Mining Minister, told the Times newspaper that a memorandum of understanding had been signed to export uranium to Tehran, a move likely to prompt alarm in western capitals, particularly in Washington.
The United States and the European Union have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is for peaceful energy uses but which they fear is intended to build a bomb.
Zimbabwe is also subject to international sanctions over its human rights record and its state-owned mining companies are banned from international trade, but a deal with Tehran circumnavigates such restrictions.
A report compiled by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog more than two years ago warned of such an outcome, detailing a visit from Iran’s then Foreign and Co-operative Ministers to Zimbabwe to strike a deal, with the Iranians also sending engineers to assess uranium deposits.
Chimanikire told the Times that a deal had been reached last year.
A Chinese company has been surveying yellow-cake deposits in the far northeast of the country and the Zimbabwe government has been actively looking for buyers, according to Mr Chimanikire, who, as an opposition politician, served in the outgoing coalition Government under President Robert Mugabe.
Uranium ore, or yellow cake, can be converted to a uranium gas which is then processed into nuclear fuel or enriched to make nuclear weapons.
Iran has long maintained that it needs the uranium for peaceful nuclear aspirations, to fuel a domestic energy programme, though a sceptical west fears its enrichment for a nuclear bomb.
Mr Mugabe, who is beginning his seventh term as Zimbabwe president following an election once against stained by accusations of widespread vote rigging, has previously described Tehran’s quest for nuclear power as a “just cause”.
Mr Chimanikire’s claim, as reported in the Times, is the first time that a serving government official has spoken of a formal agreement between the two countries over the export of the materials. He is expected to step down from his role as deputy mining minister next week when Mr Mugabe forms his latest government, despite Mr Chimanikire retaining his seat during the elections.
Zimbabwe denies the report
Zimbabwe on Saturday denied signing a secret uranium trade deal with Iran.
Mines Minister Obert Mpofu said: “We are free to trade with any country but my ministry has not signed an agreement about uranium with Tehran.” Mpofu added: “It is fiction and usual wishful thinking of the Western media. Why would we have a secret deal when we are a free country.”
Zimbabwe going after the Times Journalists
Zimbabwean police are looking for two journalists from the British newspaper The Times over the story about the secret uranium export deal between Zimbabwe and Iran, a state newspaper reported Sunday.
The two Times journalists, Jan Raath and Jerome Starkey, are wanted for “spreading falsehoods” after the uranium deal story was published in the London paper on Saturday, Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail reported.
Guardian/ AFP/ Times