|Iran's Bushehr plant has seen a number of setbacks in its more than three decade-long history [AFP]
Iran has said it will remove fuel rods from its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant, a move that is being seen as a major setback to the country's nuclear programme.
The decision, announced on Saturday, comes just months before the facility, which is located in the southern city of Bushehr, was scheduled to go into operation to generate electricity.
"Based on the recommendation of Russia, which is in charge of completing the Bushehr atomic power plant, the fuel inside the reactor core will be taken out for a while to conduct some experiments and technical work," Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said.
"After the experiments, it will again be installed in the core of the reactor," he said in comments to the ISNA news agency, but he did not specify when the experiments would be completed.
Iran has given no reason for the unexpected fuel unloading, but there has been speculation that it could be connected with the Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iranian industrial software and facilities last year. in January, The New York Times reported that the computer worm was created by US and Israeli intelligence services to sabotage Iran's nuclear ambitions.
While Tehran insists its nuclear programme is for purely civilian purposes, the West accuses it of using it as cover for building weapons,
Iran has previously admitted that the Stuxnet worm infected the Bushehr reactor, although Nasser Rastkhah, the head of Iran's nuclear safety system, said that the worm had "no effect on the controls of the Bushehr atomic plant".
But Ghanbar Naderi, a journalist with the state-run Iran Daily newspaper, warned the Stuxnet worm could cause a nuclear disaster.
"This is about a dangerous move by the West - I'm talking about the United States and Israel [which are] trying to sabotage Iran's nuclear programme and the launch of its first nuclear power plant," he said, speaking to Al Jazeera from Tehran.
"Remember, the Stuxnet computer worm has a code that can help control the nuclear power plants operations remotely.
"If it falls into the hands of someone who doesn't like success or achievement in our nuclear programme it could trigger a nuclear disaster similar to the one in Chernobyl."
Western analysts have speculated on how damaging the fuel removal could be for Iran's nuclear programme.
The New York Times quoted David A Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, as saying: "It could be simple and embarrassing all the way to 'game over'."
But he also noted that unloading a newly fueled reactor was "not unprecedented".
The Bushehr plant has suffered a series of setbacks in its more than three decade-long history, but was finally "launched" by Moscow in August last year and was due to begin generating electricity in April.
Separately, the Associated Press news agency reported an intelligence report "from an IAEA member country" as saying that Iran is expanding a covert global search for raw uranium.
It recorded a secret visit by Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, in January to uranium-rich Zimbabwe in a search for the metal.
A confidential report by the UN's nuclear watchdog said that Tehran continues to stonewall its attempts to follow up on the information.
The IAEA report also said that conversion work of uranium ore to the gas from which enriched uranium is made remained idle for the 18th month, indicating a possible shortage of the raw material on which Tehran's nuclear programme is built on.
Iran denies any uranium shortage, but the intelligence assessment is line with international assessments that Iran's domestic supplies cannot indefinitely sustain an expanding nuclear programme.
Tehran is under four sets of UN sanctions for its refusal to stop uranium enrichment, which can create both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material.