Rossing Uranium Limited, which is majority owned by Anglo-Australian firm Rio Tinto, sells its uranium to nuclear power plants in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Sweden. Reuters
By Louis Charbonneau
VIENNA - Iran, which the United States accuses of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, has a stake in the world's biggest open-pit uranium mine in the African state of Namibia, the mine's owner told Reuters.
Rossing Uranium Limited, which is majority owned by Anglo-Australian firm Rio Tinto, sells its uranium to nuclear power plants in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Sweden.
Graham Davidson, the general manager for operations at Rossing, said in a letter to Reuters that the company's board of directors only permits the sale of uranium for use in generating electricity.
"The government of Iran has held a 15 percent shareholding in Rossing Uranium Limited since 1975," he said. The U.S.-backed shah ruled Iran until the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"Representatives of the government of Iran routinely attend the Rossing board of directors meetings," Davidson said, adding that shareholders do not have "product off-take rights."
Davidson said there were no contracts with Iran for the sale of milled uranium oxide, better known as "yellowcake." The company has yet to respond to a question of whether Tehran had purchased any Rossing uranium in the past.
Yellowcake is not useable in bombs. It must be processed into uranium hexafluoride and then fed into centrifuges for high-speed purification to transform it into weapon fuel -- a complicated and time-consuming process.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and is intended to meet the country's growing power needs.
U.S. officials said they were not aware of Iran's stake in Rossing and a senior Iranian official in Tehran declined to comment.
An official at the State Department said it did not appear illegal for U.S. power companies to buy uranium from a company partly owned by Iran, but said it was worrying news.
"Without knowing the specifics of this company's sales it is difficult to say how worrisome this case might be," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"But it seems we have once again an example that could add credence to the overall picture that Iran is developing nuclear arms ... and that is troubling."
A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declined to comment.
The IAEA has reported that Iran has the technology to process and enrich uranium, though Tehran says it intends to make only low-grade enriched uranium fuel for power plants.
Davidson said: "All sales are subject to the condition that the material is used for peaceful purposes only, a condition which is closely monitored by the IAEA."
Rossing says its mine in the southern African state accounted for six percent of the world's uranium supply in 2003.
In June 2003, the IAEA said Iran had imported 1.8 tons of natural uranium from China and failed to declare it, as required under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran and imposed a strict embargo on the Islamic republic after militant students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took its staff hostage.
The embargo remains in place and President Bush has branded Iran a member of an "axis of evil" of states seeking weapons of mass destruction, along with North Korea and pre-war Iraq.
Last week, Bush said he would not rule out the use of force as an option to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. (Additional reporting by Saul Hudson in Washington)