The announcement by the Iranian government that they have succeeded in producing the fuel-grade enrichment of uranium has taken the western world by surprise. This at the time that the UN Security Council had demanded a complete halt to enrichment program was particularly provocative. The Islamic Republic has declared, in the words of President Mahmood Ahmadinejad when it gave the “good news” to the nation on Tuesday 11th April 2006, that it had joined the “nuclear club” and that no power can stop it continuing on this path. Now, the question that everybody wants to know is: how long before the Iranian regime acquires the nuclear bomb?

The regime has consistently denied any intentions to produce nuclear weapons. However, this has hardly reassured the western governments. Because of the past attempts by the Iranian government to hide its nuclear activities, the international community has been suspicious of its true intentions. And so the accusations that the Iranian regime is after developing nuclear arsenal have been coming thick and fast. Moreover, speculations about how long it will take for Iran to develop nuclear bomb have been wild and many, and range from several months to upward of 15 years. In the absence of any hard evidence, these speculations reflect more the perceptions and fear of the speculators than the reality.

The declaration of Islamic regime that it has no intention of producing atomic bomb, and even issuing a fatwa by the Supreme Leader Khamenei declaring such weapons as un-Islamic has hardly inspired confidence. The late Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution and predecessor of Khamenei who is revered by the present leadership, has famously decreed that in the course of preserving the Islamic system any promise and religious edict, no matter haw sacred the latter is, may be broken. Moreover, at present, a heated debate is going on in the Islamic seminaries of Qom on the legitimacy of the nuclear bombs, on the very basic principle that the “enemies of Islam” have got them and may use them against Moslems.

At any rate, it is suspected by most observers that the Iranian government is on the course of acquiring the nuclear bomb, and it is not a question of if rather than when. And the fact that it has now succeeded in acquiring the fuel-grade uranium, much sooner than many could have expected, has forced analysts to go back to the drawing board and revise their estimates. What has changed is not only that Iran has got to this stage sooner that many expected, but that it makes the next step a quantitative step rather then a qualitative one. That is to say: Iranians have mastered the art of enrichment – it is now the question of how many centrifuge and at what speed they can get into operation in order to get the weapon-grade uranium required for nuclear bombs.

And so new estimates have been churning out. Some would still maintain a distance of 10 to 15 years for Iran to get into the exclusive nuclear weapon club. But many have downsized their estimates considerably. Indeed, one estimate by Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation has cut the time-scale to almost zero. He said that Iran “could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days”. He has apparently based his estimate on the statement on the state-run television in Tehran by Mohammad Saeedi, Iran’s deputy nuclear chief that Iran will move to “industrial scale” uranium enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges at its Natanz plant.

But what is the Iranian government’s own estimate of the time-scale for this development? That surely is what matters most. The answer may be hidden in an entirely different preoccupation of the Iranian regime. It has to do with the “imminent” appearance of Mahdi, the hidden 12th Imam of Shiahs, who reportedly disappeared as a child some 11 centuries ago, and Shiahs have been looking forward to his return ever since. Now, according to what has been quoted from President Ahmadinejad, his appearance may be imminent.

According to Shiah traditions, Mahdi comes back at the time when the world is full of injustices, and he would have a big task of clearing the world of the unruly and the wicked. For this very reason, a true believer in Imam Mahdi should be ready and well prepared to fight. Indeed, it was customary for many devotees of Imam Mahdi to always go to bed fully dressed and with their swords handy in case they wake up to the call of duty by Mahdi and they could miss it otherwise. In the age of intercontinental missiles and atomic weapons, of course preparation for the coming of Mahdi should be of the same caliber. How else, Mahdi is supposed to fight the “world arrogance” by inferior weapons?

Ahmadinejad is known to be very keen about the Hidden Imam. He has allocated huge funds for a mosque in Jamkaran (near Qom) to encourage believers to visit the place and put their wishes addressed to the Hidden Imam in writing and put them through the two wells made especially for that purpose (segregated for men and women). He even prayed for his early return at the United Nations last September and promised the world leaders a bright world when he comes. He is also been quoted that the return of the 12th Imam could happen in the matter of “two years”. That was last summer. And so by his reckoning, the world may see the return of the Hidden Imam by the middle of next year.

And this may, more than anything else, explain the thinking behind the weapon developments by the present Iranian regime – and a clue to its time-scale. If Mr. Ahmadinejad is keen to follow other devotees of Imam Mahdi, he needs to prepare the best possible weapons for him too. And if he says that Mahdi will appear in the next year or so, he may know something that we do not! And so, as things go, if one day in summer of 2007 we hear another “good news” by Mr. Ahmadinejad that that Islamic Republic has acquired weapon-grade nuclear material, we should not get surprised, but only say “Praise be to Allah”!

Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.

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