Iran IAEA chief Ali Akbar Salehi - AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, after unveiling uranium centrifuge in Tehran on April 9, 2010. Photo by AP
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Sanctions against Iran could slow down its nuclear progress, a senior government official said on Wednesday, the first time Tehran has acknowledged the measures might have some bite.

"We cannot say the sanctions have no effect," the head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency. "Maybe they will slow down the work but they will not stop it, that's certain."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had previously said a new wave of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union would have no impact on Iran's economy or its nuclear program.

He called the U.S. sanctions - which President Barack Obama said were Washington's toughest ever - "pathetic" and said the UN resolution was worth no more than a "used handkerchief".

Salehi, who earlier on Wednesday said Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station would come on stream by the end of the summer, said the plant would not be affected by the sanctions, but Iran's more controversial uranium enrichment program might be.

"In the case of enrichment and for some equipment like equipment for measuring, we might have some problems," Salehi said. But he added that Iran would be able to produce that equipment itself if necessary.

Iran has said it is prepared to return to talks with world powers on its nuclear program, to discuss a fuel swap under which it would send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad in return for purer material - enriched to 20 percent - that it needs for a medical research reactor.

Salehi said Iran would continue enriching uranium to 20 percent - an activity which particularly concerns the West as it is a significant step towards making weapons-grade material. He said Iran, which says its program is for generating electricity and rejects Western suspicions it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, had the right to enrich even further.

"We will not produce 20-percent-enriched uranium more than our needs, but we reserve the right to enrich to whatever level of enrichment for use in peaceful ways," he was quoted as saying by the official news agency IRNA.

Obama this month signed into law far-reaching U.S. sanctions aimed at squeezing Iran's refined petroleum imports. Among other measures, the latest round of UN sanctions, in June, expanded an arms embargo against Tehran and called for new measures
against Iranian banks with suspected connections to the country's nuclear or missile programs.