| BUSHEHR, Iran
BUSHEHR, Iran Iran began fuelling its first nuclear power plant on Saturday, a potent symbol of its growing regional sway and rejection of international sanctions designed to prevent it building a nuclear bomb.
Iranian television showed live pictures of Iran's nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi and his Russian counterpart watching a fuel rod assembly being prepared for insertion into the reactor near the Gulf city of Bushehr.
"Despite all the pressures, sanctions and hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the start-up of the largest symbol of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities," Salehi told a news conference afterwards.
Iranian officials said it would take two to three months before the plant starts producing electricity and would generate 1,000 megawatts, a small proportion of the nation's 41,000 megawatt electricity demand recorded last month.
Russia designed, built and will supply fuel for Bushehr, taking back spent rods which could be used to make weapons-grade plutonium in order to ease nuclear proliferation concerns.
Saturday's ceremony comes after decades of delays building the plant, work on which was initially started by German company Siemens in the 1970s, before Iran's Islamic Revolution.
The United States criticized Moscow earlier this year for pushing ahead with Bushehr given persistent Iranian defiance over its nuclear program.
Moscow supported the latest U.N. Security Council resolution in June which imposed a fourth round of sanctions and called for Iran to stop uranium enrichment which, some countries fear, could lead it to obtain nuclear weapons.
"The construction of the nuclear plant at Bushehr is a clear example showing that any country, if it abides by existing international legislation and provides effective, open interaction with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), should have the opportunity to access peaceful use of the atom," Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom, told the news conference.
The fuelling of Bushehr is a milestone in Iran's path to harness technology which it says will reduce consumption of its abundant fossil fuels, allowing it to export more oil and gas and to prepare for the day when the minerals riches dry up.
Iran's neighbors, some of whom are also seeking nuclear power, are wary of Tehran's nuclear ambitions and its growing influence in the region, notably in Iraq where fellow Shi'ites now dominate and Lebanon, where it is a backer of Hezbollah.
While most nuclear analysts say Bushehr does not add to any proliferation risk, many countries remain deeply concerned about Iran's uranium enrichment.
It disclosed the existence of a second enrichment plant only last year and announced in February it was enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent, from about 3.5 percent previously, taking it closer to weapons-grade levels and well above what is needed to fuel a power plant.
Iran, which says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, said it needed to enrich to that level as a deal with major world power and the IAEA to supply special fuel for a medical reactor in Tehran had fallen apart.
Reacting to the Bushehr opening, British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said: "We have always respected Iran's right to develop an exclusively civil nuclear power program.
"The problem is Iran's continued refusal to satisfy the IAEA and international community that its work on uranium enrichment and heavy water projects are exclusively peaceful," he said.
Israel, widely assumed to be the only Middle East country to have nuclear weapons, has said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its existence, raising concerns Israel could attack Iran's nuclear sites.
However, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the prospect of an Israeli strike.
"I rule out any such attack because the Israeli entity is too weak to do so," he told Al Jazeera on Thursday. "Iran's response will be so strong and decisive that it will make the attackers regret their decision to hit our installations."
Salehi dismissed U.S. suggestions that Russia's guarantee to supply nuclear fuel meant Iran no longer needed to enrich its own uranium, but said Iran was in "no hurry" to build 10 new enrichment plants, something he had previously said would start by next March.
"This is not at all in contradiction to our agreement with the Russians," he said of Iran's determination to keep enriching uranium. "We intend only to show to the international community that we have the capability to supply our own fuel in case anything comes up that is unexpected."
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Jon Boyle)