Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine (left) during a visit to Tehran (January 2024)

Iran and Niger Cement Alliance With Secret ‘Yellowcake’ Uranium Deal

Saturday, 06/01/2024

Recent reporting suggests that after covert negotiations, Iran and Niger have agreed on a $56 million deal to see Tehran acquire 300 tons of refined uranium.

First reported by the France-based media outlet Africa Intelligence in late April, it was revealed that Niger's military junta had engaged in "secret negotiations" with Iran for the delivery of 300 tons of yellowcake in exchange for drones and surface-to-air missiles.

Yellowcake is a concentrated form of uranium oxide, appearing as a yellowish powder. It is produced from uranium ore and serves as an intermediate step in making nuclear fuel or weapons.

French newspaper Le Monde has since corroborated the clandestine negotiations – and reports that the specific type of uranium is produced in the mines belonging to a French company.

Uranium, Le Monde reported, is Niger's most important export product and comes from mines that have been exploited since 1971 by the French group Orano in Arlit, located in north-central Niger.

Niger's Junta government has denied the secret negotiations and agreement.

According to Africa Intelligence, as part of the agreement, Tehran would provide large-capacity generators to Niamey to address Niger's energy deficit and support agricultural conversion efforts. These initiatives were launched by the new government, which came to power in a coup d'état on July 26, 2023.

The outlet's sources also said that a covert meeting between Iranian representatives and the Nigerien prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine, occurred in August 2023 in Bamako, Mali. General Salifou Modi, the second in command of the Nigerien military junta, was also present. Iranian representatives are said to have also met with delegations of "pan-African" activists serving the juntas of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

This deal would not only challenge the numerous sanctions and agreements designed to prevent Iran from proliferating nuclear weapons, but simultaneously raises concerns in Washington and Paris. If Tehran acquires more uranium, it could expedite its nuclear capabilities, escalating international tension.

The reported amount of uranium is roughly equivalent to Iran's 2019 domestic output.

This move also has the potential to create tensions between Niger and Western countries, which have been outspoken in expressing their concerns against the sale of uranium to the Islamic rulers in Iran, bolstering Iran’s nuclear program.

This could lead to economic sanctions and political isolation for Niger, which would further undermine security in the region.

Other experts believe that Niger’s Junta is using this deal strategically, attempting to leverage their extensive uranium reserves to yield political and economic concessions from other international powers.

Shifting Alliances and Geopolitical Tensions in the Sahel

In July 2023, Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by a military junta known as the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP). This marked the sixth military takeover in Africa’s Sahel region since 2020.

The series of coups began in Mali in 2020, followed by Guinea, Chad, and Sudan in 2021, and Burkina Faso in 2022. Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali have all shown strong support for Niger’s CNSP, opposing external efforts to reinstate Bazoum.

Since taking control, Niger's junta has expelled French, other European, and now American forces, while seeking support from Russia. In March of this year, Niger's junta demanded the withdrawal of US forces after a meeting with American officials. During the meeting, senior US officials expressed concerns about the arrival of Russian troops and accused Niger's military government of planning a uranium agreement with Iran.

Responding to these accusations, CNSP spokesperson Abdramane criticized the US delegation for allegedly trying to deny Niger's sovereignty and threatening retaliation. He emphasized Niger’s right to choose its partners to effectively combat terrorism.

The US had previously established a significant military presence in Niger, including two bases as part of a 2012 counterterrorism agreement. One of these, Air Base 201, cost over $100 million and has been used since 2018 to target Islamic State terrorists and Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM).

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Niger over a decade ago, was aimed at purchasing uranium before the 2015 JCPOA agreement. Germany-based Middle East researcher Hamid Talebian suggests that access to Niger’s uranium could be a reward for Iran’s military assistance to Russia.

In response to the Le Monde article about the rumor of the purchase of “yellowcake” by the Islamic Republic of Iran from Niger, Mohammad Eslami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told journalists: “You must consider the source of the news. For the first time ever, we announced the news of the Islamic Republic’s modest nuclear program to the ears of people in all corners of the world in a completely professional manner.”

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