NIAMEY Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to arrive on Monday in Niger, the world's No. 4 uranium producer, where French nuclear group Areva has seen its monopoly tested by a government looking to diversify its partners.
Niger is the second of three stops on a trip aimed at deepening Iran's ties with Africa, a continent Ahmadinejad has courted for business deals and diplomatic support as the Islamic Republic becomes increasingly isolated by international sanctions targeting its disputed nuclear program.
Some Western analysts say Iran may be close to exhausting its reserves of raw uranium crucial to its nuclear activity and could have to seek out foreign sources of supply.
Last week, Iran said operations had begun at two uranium mines and a milling plant in the country and that Western opposition would not slow its nuclear work.
Ahmadinejad will be coming from Benin. After Niger he will go on to oil-producing Ghana in what is expected to be his last Africa tour before he steps down in June after completing the second of a maximum two terms as president.
It was not clear if any deal with Niger was on the table during Ahmadinejad's trip, but his Nigerien counterpart said last month he wanted to renegotiate the terms of its nuclear business with Areva.
On the eve of Ahmadinejad's arrival, a local student's union called for Niger to strike a uranium deal with Iran.
"Areva has exploited us for over 40 years. What the Nigerien people need is a fair partnership," the union said in statement broadcast on private television stations.
There is broad frustration in Niger that one of the world's least developed nations straddling the Sahara has not benefited more from decades of mining by Areva in its remote desert north.
Earlier this month, several thousand people protested on the streets of Niamey against Areva, burning French flags.
Talks are continuing between France and Niger and Areva has agreed to pay Niger 35 million euros ($45.84 million) in compensation over delays to the planned Imouraren project.
But France remains an important partner for Niger, providing some 50 million euros in budgetary support last year on top of various other aid projects.
Iran has denied having shortages of raw uranium, says its mines can supply the ore needed for its nuclear activity.
But a report this month by U.S. think-tanks Carnegie Endowment and the Federation of American Scientists said the scarcity and low quality of Iran's uranium resources compel it "to rely on external sources of natural and processed uranium".
It added: "Despite the Iranian leadership's assertions to the contrary, Iran's estimated uranium endowments are nowhere near sufficient to supply its planned nuclear program."
Iran denies Western accusations that it is stockpiling enriched uranium as potential nuclear weapons fuel, not for future civilian power stations as it maintains.
(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by David Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)