A view from Khunayfis mine in Homs Governorate, Syria, from which Iran will import hundreds of thousands of tons of phosphate to produce uranium

Exclusive: Iran Importing Phosphates From Syria To Extract Uranium

Wednesday, 05/03/2023

While President Ebrahim Raisi is in Syria, classified information obtained shows Tehran is procuring uranium from phosphate mines in Syria to make yellowcake.

According to the secret documents received by Iran International, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) had asked the government to let the agency import 800,000 tons of phosphate from the mines under the Islamic Republic’s control in Syria without paying the share of the administration.

One of the documents is a letter issued in January by Mojtaba Hosseinipour, a deputy at the president’s office, addressing Minister of Economic and Financial Affairs Ehsan Khandozi and Reza Fatemi Amin, the former Minister of Industry, Mines and Business who was sacked this week, as well as former head of Iran's Planning and Budget Organization Masoud Mirkazemi and Mohammad Dehghan, Raisi’s deputy in legal matters.

In the letter, the office of the president has asked the officials to decide whether or not they can give the green light to the nuclear agency for “the annual purchase of phosphates from Syria without paying the government’s share.”

In 2017, Tehran and Damascus signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in a phosphate mine in Syria’s Al-Sharqiya. Syria is among the world’s largest exporters of the rock phosphate, a raw material used in the production of phosphatic fertilizers. The main use of phosphate is production of fertilizers, but the rock is also an unconventional source to extract uranium, explained in another document attached to the letter.

While EU sanctions on Syria do not explicitly prohibit phosphate imports, they do ban deals with the Syrian minister of oil and mineral resources, who is in charge of phosphates. Cheap Syrian phosphate exports to Europe have boomed in recent years, The Guardian reported in January 2022, noting that European farmers are dependent on phosphate fertilizers. Anyhow, it seems that the Islamic Republic has found another way around sanctions to advance its nuclear program.

Another letter included in the bundle of documents is by the head of Iran’s atomic agency, Mohammad Eslami, who asked Raisi’s first deputy Mohammad Mokhber to allow the purchase of the product from Syria.

A sample of the documents revealing Iran is importing phosphates for uranium extraction

“In order to supply part of the uranium needed for the country's nuclear industry, this organization (AEOI) is mulling a project to extract uranium from Syria’s phosphate mines, the exploitation of which is at the disposal of the Islamic Republic,” Eslami wrote.

“Due to the high grade of uranium in the phosphate soil of these mines, the extraction of the element and the preparation of yellowcake from it is technically more feasible than the extraction of uranium from low-grade radioactive mines of Iran,” he added, requesting the cabinet to give the go-ahead for the project without paying the government.

Yellowcake is used in the preparation of uranium fuel for nuclear reactors, for which it is smelted into purified uranium dioxide for use in fuel rods for pressurized heavy-water reactors and other systems that use natural unenriched uranium. It has both civilian use as well as application for weapons but it should be processed further. Highly enriched uranium can be blended down with uranium containing low levels of U-235 to produce low-enriched uranium -- less than 5% U-235 -- fuel for power reactors. Further processing can yield weapons-grade uranium with U-235 levels usually above 90%, suitable for nuclear weapons.

In an appendix attached to the letter, the nuclear agency said that there are two main sources for extracting uranium, but the Islamic Republic is barred from using the conventional sources under international sanctions.

It has been forced to resort to unconventional sources in which uranium is extracted as a byproduct, such as is the case for phosphate soil.Khunayfis mine in Homs Governorate with 300 million tons of phosphates is the better choice among the mines under contract with Iran because it has a higher amount of uranium, according to the document.

The presidents of Iran and Syria on Wednesday signed a long-term strategic cooperation agreement, including a memorandum of understanding on oil industry cooperation.

The signing came during a visit by Raisi to Damascus for talks with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, in the first such visit by an Iranian head of state since war broke out in Syria in 2011. Tehran is helping Syria rebuild its roads, airports, power stations and ports — potentially benefiting the Revolutionary Guards, which own the biggest construction firms in Iran.

In March, the E3, made up of France, Germany and the UK, issued a tough statement addressing IAEA Board of Governors, demanding immediate response to Iran’s 84-percent uranium enrichment.

While the US responded to the IAEA chief’s visit to Tehran with a cautious approach, waiting to see what the outcomes would be, the E3 said the enrichment at up to 83.7% U-235 is an “extremely grave escalation” which comes against the highly concerning backdrop of continued accumulation of high enriched uranium up to 60% and Iran continuing to expand its enrichment capabilities.

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