Iran's first nuclear power plant is set to be launched by late September now that an important final test has been carried out at the reactor, the head of the Islamic state's Atomic Energy Organisation said on Wednesday.
Ali Akbar Salehi's statement, at the site near the Gulf port city of Bushehr, suggested that a row that erupted between Moscow and Tehran in May over new U.N. sanctions against Iran had caused no further delays to the project.
"We reached the point of no return and the ground is paved for the reactor to go on stream," the official IRNA news agency quoted Salehi as saying, adding the start-up would take place during the Iranian month which begins on Aug. 23.
He said warm-water tests had been conducted on the facility, adding they were "the last and some of the most important tests before going on stream." The report did not say when they were carried out nor by whom.
Russia agreed to build the 1,000 megawatt reactor 15 years ago but delays have haunted the $1 billion project and diplomats say Moscow has used it as a lever in relations with Tehran.
The head of Russia's state nuclear corporation, Sergei Kiriyenko, said this year the Bushehr reactor was scheduled to begin operating in August. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised Russia's plans to start up Bushehr, saying it was "premature" without further assurances on Tehran's nuclear programme.
Iran says its atomic activities are aimed at generating electricity, not developing arms, as Western powers suspect.
Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which on June 9 adopted a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend sensitive nuclear work.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admonished the Kremlin for bowing to what he said was U.S. pressure to agree the sanctions.
Russia dismissed the criticism.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, trade has grown between the two major energy producers, reaching $3 billion last year.
But Russia has been dismayed by Tehran's failure to disclose full details about its nuclear programme and diplomats say that Kremlin leaders have been burned several times while attempting to get Iranian leaders to resolve the dispute.
Salehi said Bushehr was a "symbol" of cooperation between Iran and Russia.