| BUSHEHR, Iran
BUSHEHR, Iran Russia plans to start up Iran's first nuclear power station in March 2010 to coincide with the Iranian New Year, two sources closely involved with the project told Reuters.
Russia agreed in 1995 to build the 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plant at Bushehr on the Gulf coast in south-western Iran, but delays have haunted the $1 billion project and diplomats say Moscow has used it as a lever in relations with Tehran.
The sources, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, both said that Russia had ordered that the plant be ready for operation by the holiday which falls in the second half of March.
"We have been given the task of launching the plant by Iranian New Year," said one of the sources. "There is still a lot of work to do." The second source added that testing at the plant was going well.
During a visit to the nuclear plant on Monday, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said it would be finished soon but refused to give a time.
"The Bushehr plant will be finished in the nearest future," said Shmatko, who before he was made energy minister used to head the Russian state company that is helping to build Bushehr.
The atomic power station was once a source of disagreement between Russia and the West, which suspected the Islamic Republic would try to use it to build nuclear weapons.
But in recent years, the United States has dropped its opposition and says the plant removes any need for Iran to have its own enrichment program.
Russia says the plant is purely civilian and cannot be used for any weapons program as it will come under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision. Iran will have to return all spent fuel rods to Russia.
Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is a key player in efforts to force Tehran to allay Western fears about its nuclear program.
Moscow has previously supported UN sanctions against Iran only after insisting they be watered down and has so far refused to publicly support calls by the United States for the threat of additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Russia has even been censured by some in Tehran for using Iran as a "pawn" in the diplomatic poker game over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
At a news briefing in Bushehr on Monday, Shmatko was pressed by Iranian reporters about why Moscow had failed to deliver S-300 air-defense missile systems that could defend Iranian nuclear facilities against any potential strike by Israel.
"Thank God, not everybody in Iran thinks that Russia has made some sort of deal against Iran," said Shmatko.
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, was asked why Russia had supported a U.N. nuclear agency resolution that rebuked Iran for keeping an enrichment plant secret.
Salehi dismissed the question, saying that Tehran and Moscow had good cooperation and that Russia would be given priority for participating in Iran's plans to build an extra 20,000 megawatts of new power generation over the next two decades.
"For these projects Russia will have a priority," he said. "Cooperation between Iran and Russia is of a strategic character."
Moscow agreed to build the Bushehr station in 1995 on the site of a plant begun in the 1970s by German firm Siemens. This project was disrupted by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Charles Dick)