MOSCOW (Reuters) -- 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.
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.
Diplomats say Russia uses Bushehr -- and major arms contracts -- as a lever in relations with Tehran, which is suspected by the United States and other Western powers of seeking to build a nuclear weapon.
The United States previously criticized Russia's involvement in the project but has dropped its opposition and now says the station 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.
Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko was due to visit the Bushehr plant today.
Russia in November said technical issues would prevent its engineers from starting up the Bushehr reactor by the end of the year. Moscow had previously said the plant, which is being built by a Russian state-owned company, would be started up in 2009.
Iran has defied international pressure to allay fears over its nuclear program and on November 29 President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government said it would build 10 new uranium enrichment plants.
The move was condemned by the United States as a clear attempt by the Islamic republic to isolate itself and Washington warned that time was running out for Iran to address the West's concerns over its nuclear plans.
Russia is "seriously concerned" by the Iranian statement, a source in the Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying by local news agencies.
Russia has so far refused to publicly support calls by the United States for the threat of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
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.
The contract to build the plant is a state secret, though it is estimated to be worth about $1 billion.