VIENNA - The procession of cars carrying Fereidoun Abbasi Davani sped down Vienna's Wagramer Strasse this Monday and into the underground car park of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Outside the building, on the bank of the Danube River, some 30 protesters from the Stop the Bomb movement demonstrated, waving signs denouncing the Iranian nuclear scientist. But Iranian security officers seemed more concerned about the prospect of someone trying to exploit Abbasi Davani's controversial visit to finish the job.
On November 29, 2010, anonymous assailants tried to assassinate Abbasi Davani as he emerged from his home in Tehran. He and his wife, seated next to him in the car, were hit by gunfire, but survived the assassination attempt. Iran blamed the Mossad for the failed operation.
The assassins were more successful in a different attack launched that same day, which killed another nuclear scientist - Majid Shahriari.
The Iranians claimed that Abbasi Davani was nothing but an innocent physics professor. Intelligence sources countered that his university position was just a cover for his secret activity as one of the leading experts in Iran's weaponization, which is working on the final and decisive stage of developing a nuclear weapon under the auspices of the Revolutionary Guards. His name appears on the UN Security Council's blacklist, compiled after the council voted in March 2007 to impose sanctions on companies, organizations and individuals involved in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It also appears on similar lists compiled by the United States and the European Union, which ordered that his assets be frozen.
About two months after Abbasi Davani was shot, in January 2011, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed him as his vice president and as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, a defiant move that seemed to say Iran would continue its nuclear program and no one could stop it.
Some two weeks prior to his arrival in Vienna to take part in the IAEA's Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety, Abbasi Davani announced that by the end of the year, Iran would triple the amount of uranium it has enriched to a level of 20 percent. Though uranium enriched to this level is intended mostly to fuel Tehran's small nuclear research reactor, which produces medical isotopes, it also bolsters the knowledge of Iranian nuclear experts and their ability to control all stages of enrichment - including to a level of 93%, which enables the production of fissile material used in making a nuclear weapon.
This announcement by the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization was very disturbing to Israel, the United States and other Western countries. It indicates that Iran is determined to continue its nuclear program at full speed and is even accelerating the pace. It means Iran's leadership is undaunted by the sanctions imposed on the country, or by the damage the Stuxnet computer worm caused to the program that operates the centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The Stuxnet worm has been ascribed to a sabotage operation undertaken by the Mossad and the CIA. According to foreign sources, it is one of the major achievements of former Mossad head Meir Dagan.
In the same announcement, Abbasi Davani said Iran has developed an advanced centrifuge model whose rotors spin at greater speed, thus enabling the enrichment of a larger amount of uranium in a shorter time. Such centrifuges, he said, will be constructed at the second uranium enrichment site that Iran built secretly near the Revolutionary Guards base just outside of Qom.
According to the reports of IAEA inspectors who visited it, the site, built deep inside a mountain, looks like a fortified facility made to withstand aerial bombardments. Its existence was revealed in September 2009 thanks to information obtained by the intelligence agencies of Israel, the U.S. and Britain. According to both diplomatic sources in Vienna and intelligence experts, the site at Qom, which contains only 3,000 centrifuges, can only have one goal - enriching uranium for the production of a nuclear weapon.
Worrying new questions
Two crucial new questions are now worrying all those who follow Iran's nuclear program. One is whether Qom was chosen as a site for uranium enrichment due only to its strategic location, or if any meaning should be attached to the fact that Shi'ites consider it a holy city, the place of residence of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic.
Ahmadinejad and several of his ministers, as well as senior commanders in the Revolutionary Guards, belong to a small but influential group in the Iranian government that adheres to a mystical belief in the coming of the Mahdi - the Twelfth, or hidden, Imam - who is considered the Shi'ite messiah. One of the conditions for the Mahdi's coming is that a huge proportion of the world's population be annihilated in a great war.
This radical Shi'ite doctrine has parallels in the idea of the War of Gog and Magog in Christian eschatology, which is prophesied to take place in the Jezreel Valley not far from Tel Megiddo (Armageddon in the Greek translation ). Is the site at Qom Ahmadinejad's Armageddon, where a weapon will be developed that will annihilate the unbelievers and hasten the coming of the Messiah?
Another cause for concern is an article published about two months ago on a Revolutionary Guards website. In it, for the first time, the author talked about "the day after" Iran carries out a successful nuclear test that would transform it into a nuclear power. Previously, Iranian government officials had always maintained strict silence on this subject. Was the article a fluke, the result of negligence by inattentive censors, or was it written to prepare public opinion, both at home and abroad?
It is difficult for a Western rationalist to accept the possibility, even if its likelihood is negligible, that Iran is motivated by religious belief in its determination to obtain a nuclear weapon, and might even use such a weapon for religious reasons. After all, aside from Ahmadinejad's domestic troubles, including calls in parliament for his ouster, the one who decides on sensitive strategic issues like the nuclear one in Iran is not the president, but supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who is not known to have any messianic leanings.
But the sum total of all these developments - the appointment of Abbasi Davani, his announcements about the acceleration of enrichment and its transfer to Qom, the unusual article - all these, especially in light of the Arab revolutions that have diverted the world's attention from Tehran, may indicate that Iran is closer to reaching a decision than experts had previously thought. This may also be the background for the outspoken warnings by Dagan, who fears a hasty, reckless decision by the prime and defense ministers to order the Israel Air Force to attack Iran.
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