Iran pursuing uranium deal with Kazakhstan

Intelligence report reveals Tehran short on material

By George Jahn
Associated Press / December 30, 2009

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VIENNA - Iran is close to clinching a deal to clandestinely import 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan, according to an intelligence report disclosed yesterday. Diplomats said the assessment was heightening international concern about Tehran’s nuclear activities.

Such a deal would be significant because, according to an independent research group, Tehran appears to be running out of the material, which it needs to feed its uranium enrichment program.

The report was drawn up by a member nation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and provided to the Associated Press on condition that the country not be identified because of the confidential nature of the information.

A summary of the report said the deal, which would violate UN sanctions, could be completed within weeks. It said Tehran was willing to pay $450 million for the shipment.

“The price is high because of the secret nature of the deal and due to Iran’s commitment to keep secret the elements supplying the material,’’ the summary said. An official of the country that drew up the report said elements referred to employees of the Kazakh government acting on their own without the government’s approval.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, “the transfer of any uranium yellowcake . . . to Iran would constitute a clear violation’’ of UN Security Council sanctions.

“We have been engaged with many of our international nonproliferation partners on Iran’s illicit efforts to acquire new supplies of uranium over the past several years,’’ he said.

A senior US official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was talking about confidential information said Washington was aware of the intelligence report, but he declined to discuss specifics.

“‘We have been engaged with Kazakhstan and many of our other international nonproliferation partners on this subject in particular over the past several years,’’ he said.

At the United Nations in New York, Ambassador Michel Kafando of Burkina Faso, a cochairman of the Security Council’s Iran sanctions committee, referred questions about a potential deal between Iran and Kazakhstan to his sanctions adviser, Zongo Saidou. Saidou said that, as far as he knew, none of the UN’s member nations has alerted the committee about any such allegations.

A senior UN official said the Vienna-based IAEA was aware of the assessment but could not yet draw conclusions. A Western diplomat from a member of the IAEA’s 35-nation board said the report was causing concern among countries that have seen it.

After-hours calls to offices of Kazatomprom, the Kazakh state uranium company, in Kazakhstan and Moscow, were not answered. Iranian nuclear officials also did not answer their telephones.

Purified ore, or uranium oxide - known as yellowcake - is processed into a uranium gas, which is then spun and respun to varying degrees of enrichment. Low-enriched uranium is used for nuclear fuel, and upper-end high-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Analysts say Iran has amassed enough low-enriched uranium to build at least two nuclear warheads, should it choose to.

David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, estimated Tehran theoretically could produce 150 such weapons from 1,350 tons of yellowcake, as specified in the intelligence report, but said that was not necessarily why Iran wanted the material.

Iran is under three sets of Security Council sanctions for refusing to freeze its enrichment program and related activities that could be used to make nuclear weapons. Tehran denies such aspirations, saying it wants to enrich only to fuel an envisaged network of power reactors.

Any attempt to import such a large amount of uranium ore would a violation of those sanctions, which ban exports to the Islamic Republic of all items, materials, equipment, goods, and technology that could contribute to its enrichment activities.