Iran IAEA chief Ali Akbar Salehi - AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, after unveiling uranium centrifuge in Tehran on April 9, 2010. Photo by AP
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Iran is expanding its covert global search for the uranium it needs for its nuclear activities and a key focus is Zimbabwe, says a new intelligence report acquired Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The report is in line with international assessments that Iran's domestic supplies cannot sustain its nuclear program that could be turned toward making weapons.

An intelligence report from a member country of the International Atomic Energy Agency — shared with the AP by an official from that nation — says Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met secretly last month with senior Zimbabwean mining officials "to resume negotiations ... for the benefit of Iran's uranium procurement plan."

"This follows work carried out by Iranian engineers to map out uranium deposits in Africa and assess the amount of uranium they contain," said the two-page intelligence summary.

The report — confirmed independently by an official from another IAEA country — was shared as an Iranian delegation led by the head of the Cooperative Ministry Abbas Johari was meeting Thursday with "agriculture and mining interests" in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.

The official confirming the intelligence described the Salehi visit as part of an international Iranian effort that stretches across Africa, Asia and South America and may involve more than a dozen countries. Both officials — whose countries closely follow Iran's nuclear program — asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing intelligence matters.

The assessments are important because they call into question recent Iranian assertions meant to dispel doubts about the country's capability to sustain and expand its uranium enrichment program.

Iran says it is enriching solely to power a future network of nuclear reactors. But it has been targeted by United Nations sanctions because enrichment can also create fissile warhead material — and because of its nuclear secrecy and refusal to cooperate with IAEA probes into its activities.

The assessments come days ahead of the latest IAEA report on Iran, which has been under nearly a decade of international nuclear perusal over concerns it might seek to develop nuclear arms.

Diplomats said Thursday that report may contain an index listing experiments the agency suspects Iran conducted as part of work on a nuclear weapons program. The alleged experiments have been known for years, but republication would show the agency's impatience with Iran's prolonged refusal to cooperate with its investigation.

Tehran still has hundreds of tons of uranium hexafluoride — the gas derived from ore that is spun by centrifuges into the enriched uranium that can be used as reactor fuel and to arm nuclear missiles. But both Western intelligence agencies and IAEA officials say that it does not seem have meaningful domestic supplies of the ore itself. That means that Iran's enrichment efforts would ultimately have to be curtailed unless new domestic or foreign supplies are secured.

Tehran denies any shortages. Because UN sanctions ban countries from selling Iran any nuclear material, it is publicly focusing on searching and exploiting possible domestic supplies at its only operating mine near Bandar
Abbas and a site at Saghand, both in southern Iran. Salehi in December said it had started uranium ore processing for the first time from domestic production instead of using supplies it imported decades ago.

Still — despite asserting that it has plentiful ore reserves at Saghand — there have been no attempts to exploit the site, because of what officials says is lack of money.

"Iran's known uranium ore reserves are limited and mostly of poor quality making them commercially unprofitable to mine," says former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Mark Fitzpatrick.