With the drama of the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden dominating the headlines, you might have missed the most important development in months surrounding Iran's nuclear program: Zimbabwe's emergence as a key enabler of the Islamic Republic's march toward the atomic bomb.
In recent days, officials in Harare have confirmed that the government of Robert Mugabe is finalizing a massive resources deal with Tehran, in defiance of United Nations sanctions aimed at derailing Iran's nuclear push. That agreement, in the works since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the African state in April 2010, would provide the Iranian regime with preferential access to the country's estimated 455,000 tons of raw uranium over the next five years.
The deal sheds light on what amounts to a major chink in the Islamic Republic's nuclear armor. For all of its atomic bluster, the Iranian regime lacks enough of the critical raw material necessary to independently acquire a nuclear capability. According to nonproliferation experts, Iran's known uranium ore reserves are limited and generally of poor quality. It desperately needs steady supplies of uranium ore from abroad, and without those supplies the Islamic Republic's nuclear plans would, quite simply, grind to a halt.
This vulnerability is deepening. Iran's aging uranium stockpile, which the Islamic Republic acquired from South Africa in the 1970s, is mostly depleted. Tehran in recent months has been feverishly courting a motley crew of foreign partners in search of new and stable sources of uranium to fuel its nuclear habit. According to a confidential intelligence summary from an unnamed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) member state this past February, the Islamic Republic has focused on Africa, home to a number of key uranium producers including Zimbabwe, Senegal, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Tehran's procurement patterns offer a major opportunity for the West. Over the years, Washington and its European allies have worked feverishly to prevent Iran's acquisition of the technology needed for its nuclear program, with only limited success. Today, despite numerous covert initiatives ranging from the promulgation of deliberately faulty designs to the sabotage of critical materials, the IAEA estimates Iran to have some 11,000 operational centrifuges and a stockpile of more than two tons of low-enriched uranium—a sufficient quantity, nuclear scientists say, to build more than one nuclear weapon if it is refined further.
Other efforts have likewise had only limited impact. Even Stuxnet, the mysterious computer worm that ravaged Iran's nuclear-control systems between mid-2009 and late 2010, is by now largely a spent force. The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington-based nonproliferation think tank, estimates that at the height of its effectiveness, the malicious software destroyed just over 10% of the 9,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran's Natanz facility, and that the virus "is unlikely to destroy more."
Comparatively little attention, however, has been paid to the critical fuel necessary for Iran's nuclear progress. Over the past three years, Western chancelleries have marshaled considerable diplomatic efforts to dissuade potential uranium suppliers such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Brazil from providing Tehran with the raw material needed for its nuclear program. For all of their concern, Washington policy makers have not yet given serious thought to penalizing countries for their uranium sales to Iran, nor have they crafted a legislative framework that makes it possible to do so.
They should. By identifying and then punishing Tehran's current suppliers of uranium ore, the U.S. and its allies can slow its acquisition of the raw material necessary to realize its nuclear ambitions—and send a clear signal to potential future sources of uranium for Iran's atomic effort, like Zimbabwe, that their involvement with the Islamic Republic's nuclear program will come at a steep economic and political cost.
In its ongoing bid to derail Iran's nuclear drive, Capitol Hill is now said to be contemplating new sanctions aimed at further tightening the international noose around Tehran. Iran's flirtation with Zimbabwe strongly suggests that lawmakers would do well to focus less on trying to stop Iran's centrifuges from spinning and more on making sure that Iran's nuclear machinery is running on empty.