Iranian and Russian officials Monday inaugurated Iran's first nuclear power plant in the southern Gulf port of Bushehr, the Khabar news network reported.

The ceremony was attended by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi and nuclear chief Fereydoun Abbasi, as well as Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko and the head of Russia's state-run nuclear power corporation Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, Khabar reported.

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Forty per cent of the 1,000-megawatt capacity is to be connected to the national energy grid in the initial phase, and full capacity is scheduled to be reached in November.

The plant uses Russian-made fuel and its nuclear waste is to be returned to Russia. Iran and Russia have granted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full supervision of the joint plant.

"This is the first nuclear power plant in the Middle East, and Iran and Russia have set an example for peaceful nuclear cooperation," said Abbasi, Iran's vice-president and head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization.

"The start of the Bushehr plant symbolically shows to the world how a country could maintain its freedom and independence through resistance," he added, in reference to Western opposition towards Iran's nuclear programs.

Responding to concerns from neighboring sheikhdoms, Abbasi said in his inauguration speech that safety was a top priority at the Bushehr plant.

In a joint press conference, Shmatko said that all internationally required safety measures should be fully implemented before using the plant at full capacity.

"Based on clear international regulations and standards, more tests should be made before starting the plant at full capacity and Iranian experts should not sacrifice safety for the sake of reaching the final phase earlier," Shmatko said.

While Iran wants the plant to reach maximum level as soon as possible, Shamtko stressed that the connection of the plant to the national grid was being made according to a very precise safety plan.

This includes switching off the plant's reactor several times to carry out additional tests before gradually increasing output to 50, 75 and finally 100 per cent of the total capacity of 1,000 megawatts.

"All relevant tests made so far have been approved by the IAEA and further tests are necessary to make sure that the plant will work safely for decades," the Russian official said in the press conference, shown by Khabar TV.

Abbasi confirmed that Iran and Russia had made initial agreements to build further nuclear power plants, probably in or near Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, but did not rule out cooperation with other countries.

"As our final aim is to reach production of 20,000 megawatts and we cannot realize this aim just by our own experts, we are open to cooperation with other countries as well," Abbasi told reporters.

The Iranian nuclear chief once again reiterated that Iran had a legitimate right to pursue peaceful nuclear programs, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. International pressure and United Nations sanctions would not hinder Iran's nuclear work, he said.

"We are committed to all international nuclear regulations but not beyond that," Abbasi said, referring to IAEA demands that Iran responds to Western intelligence reports accusing Tehran of working on a secret nuclear weapon program.

Western media representatives were not allowed to attend the inauguration ceremony, and only Iranian and Russian reporters were dispatched to Bushehr.

The construction of the plant was started in 1975 by a German company, which dropped the project in the 1990s due to political considerations.

In 1995, Russia signed a contract to complete the plant but the start-up date was delayed for technical and political reasons.

Iran and Russia are reportedly to have equal shares in the joint venture operating the Bushehr plant, but gradually all shares are to be transferred to the Iranian side.

Moscow plans to hand the facility completely over to Iranian hands within the next three years, but Tehran wants full control much sooner.