Iran says it has requested to buy 950 tons of uranium ore from Kazakhstan over three years to help develop its civil reactor program. Tehran has asked a body overseeing its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to approve the purchase and is still awaiting Britain’s agreement, the ISNA news agency quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, as saying on February 25. Salehi also said Iran expects to get Russian help in producing nuclear fuel.
The Iranian announcement raised eyebrows in Congress, if nothing else because it once again raised the specter of the secret side deals and understandings struck by nuclear negotiators with Iran. Such agreements would have been illicitly withheld from Congress by the White House and State Department before the key vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Iranian reporting on the attempt to purchase Kazakh uranium shows that Great Britain (as opposed, alas, to the United States) continues to resist authorizing the yellowcake deal. Here, for example, is the Islamic Republic News Agency:
[Vice President and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar] Salehi pointed to purchase of 900 tons of yellow cake from abroad, and said, ‘We had a memorandum of understanding with (US Secretary of Energy) Ernest Moniz and the Group 5+1 and in the last meeting with Mr. Moniz in Frankfurt the MoU was approved and signed, but unfortunately in the last moments one of these countries or Britain broke its promise which is under follow-up by the foreign ministry. If this MoU becomes operational we will add about 900 tons of yellow cake within three years,’ Salehi added.
Tasnim, an outlet close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had more:
During the meeting, held in Germany’s Frankfurt, and attended by former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, the contract on the purchase of 900 tons of yellowcake was negotiated and signed, but unfortunately, the London government pulled out of the deal, he deplored.
Put aside Tehran’s frustration with London. What is most curious here is the timeline of the deal and Moniz’s involvement. Moniz is no stranger to Kazakhstan. He traveled to the Central Asian country a year ago, but the Department of Energy’s press release on the visit made no mention of Iran dealing. He has also previously spoken at Kazakh Embassy-sponsored events.
The Iranians, for their part, announced the deal more than a month after the end of Obama’s (and Moniz’s) term in office and Tasnim is careful to talk about Moniz as the ex-Energy Secretary. If this is the case and negotiations carried on after Moniz’s tenure in government, then what exactly was Moniz doing helping to negotiate? And to what extent were officials within the U.S. government aware of the talks? Rick Perry did not take over as secretary of energy until March 2, 2017, after Iran had announced the Kazakhstan deal. Tillerson took the helm of the State Department a month earlier but did not yet have a team in place to monitor such dealings.
It is unclear if Moniz was acting in a consulting capability and, if so, the type of compensation he might have received for his role.
The Trump administration has yet to fulfill its promise to publish the secret side deals that accompany the Iranian nuclear negotiations and hostage deals. Let us hope that Moniz was not involved in talks that help further Iran’s enrichment program after the end of his government tenure. If he were, it would cast a larger shadow over the motivations and risks taken by negotiators in the run-up to the JCPOA.