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Iran's Atomic Energy Head Says Sanctions 'Slowing Down' Nuclear Program

Amid great fanfare, Iran's Atomic Energy Agency head Ali Akbar Salehi told a press conference Wednesday that the long delayed completion of Iran's Bushehr civilian nuclear power plant would take place by late August or September, now that final testing is complete. He said that Iran is conducting final tests on the Bushehr plant and that God willing, it would be officially up and running by late summer. Russia agreed to build the plant 15 years ago so that would finally end the long wait for the project's completion.

Salehi also told the Iranian Student News Agency that international sanctions, which were "aimed at preventing Iran's nuclear activities," would ultimately "slow down the work, but not stop it."

He noted that the procurement of some sensitive equipment used in Iran's nuclear enrichment activities would be "more difficult to acquire," admitting that recently enacted U.S. and U.N. sanctions would impact Tehran's nuclear program.

Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have defiantly repeated in recent days that new sanctions would have no effect on their country.

New U.S. sanctions, as well as last month's U.N. Security Council sanctions, are aimed at forcing Tehran to halt its nuclear enrichment activities. CIA Director Leon Panetta said recently that Iran now has enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so.

Tehran insists that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful, civilian purposes, of which the Russian-built Bushehr plant is a part. Western nations, however, suspect that Tehran is covertly trying to build nuclear weapons, pointing to its ongoing enrichment of 20 percent grade uranium.

Iranian-born analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington says that Iranian leaders, including Ali Akbar Salehi, have been saying for months that the Bushehr plant would soon be operational, setting themselves up for a series of embarrassments.

"There have been many empty promises on this issue of the launch of Bushehr," he said. "This has been promised or ready a few times this year. We've been told spring, summer, and now we're into sort of almost Fall. It's kind of become a bit of a national joke in Iran - this massive wait for one plant. And what it also does, every time they fail to launch the plant as promised, they raise a very sensitive issue that the regime in Iran itself is very exposed to, which is this reliance on unreliable Russia."

The opening of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is not, theoretically, included in the recent round of new U.N. Security Council sanctions. Russian officials have said that they plan to complete it as planned.

Vatanka adds that Ali Akbar Salehi's admission that sanctions are going to have an impact on Iran's nuclear activities is just a statement of the obvious.

"If you look at the number of people who have been arrested around the world who are alleged to be involved in Iran's procurement network for its nuclear program," he says, "it shows to what extent Iran must go to meet the technical requirements for its nuclear program."