Iran announces new delays at Bushehr nuclear plant – but denies Stuxnet link

Iran announced months of delays for its Bushehr nuclear plant today, as the US hit Iran with more sanctions over its human rights record.

Vahid Salemi/AP
An Iranian security directs media at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, with the reactor building seen in the background, just outside the southern city of Bushehr, Iran, on Aug. 21.

Iran said its troubled Bushehr nuclear power plant won't go on line for at least another three months, the latest delay for a plant that is the centerpiece of Iran's nuclear power program.

The announcement in August of the Russian-built Bushehr's imminent commissioning created alarm in some quarters, with some analysts saying the early stages of the plant's operation could produce fuel suitable for conversion into a nuclear weapon.

Since, there's been growing evidence of clandestine efforts to disrupt Iran's nuclear progress. In particular, some Internet security analysts say the Stuxnet virus, a sophisticated program apparently designed to disrupt the sort of Siemens software used to control processes at the plant, appeared to have been targeting Iran's nuclear sites.

Expanded US sanctions

The announcement of the delay came as the US stepped up pressure on the Iranian regime, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcing expanded sanctions targeting some of the most influential people in the Islamic Republic. The US said it would seek to freeze the assets of and outlaw business dealings with the head of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, the country's chief prosecutor, and its intelligence minister, among others.

" 'On these officials' watch or under their command Iranian citizens have been arbitrarily, beaten, tortured, raped, blackmailed and killed," Clinton said. "Today we declare our solidarity with their victims and with all Iranians who wish for a government that respects their human rights and their dignity and their freedom."

There have been persistent reports that Iranian political reformers and activists have been tortured and raped while in detention. This week, family members of Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian blogger who went by the online handle "Hoder" had been sentenced to almost 20 years in jail for "subversive" activities.

Though Ms. Clinton said the sanctions were a response to human rights abuses, however, the diplomatic backdrop is one in which Iran has continued to expand its nuclear program in defiance of US and United Nations sanctions.

Iran denies Stuxnet virus caused delays at Bushehr

Analysts are still trying to figure out exactly what is happening with Bushehr. Iranian officials have said the delays were not caused by the virus, though they indicated that it may have been found on computers at Bushehr.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's atomic energy agency, told a government-linked news agency on Wednesday that while the virus had been found on the personal laptops of some technicians at Bushehr it hadn't spread to the facility's main computers.

"I say firmly that enemies have failed so far to damage our nuclear systems through computer worms despite all of their measures and we have cleaned our systems," he told the Iranian Students News Agency.

Nevertheless, speculation about who created Stuxnet and for what purpose is likely to continue. Internet security analysts say the complexity of the program indicates a government was likely behind Stuxnet's creation, and investigators told this paper that the virus appeared to be targeted at Iran.

Security analysts have long speculated that the US has been seeking to covertly disrupt Iran's nuclear program, though most speculation has focused on possible US efforts to covertly sell flawed centrifuges and other equipment to Iran, in an effort to slow down its nuclear enrichment program at Natanz, the key bone of contention between Iran and the US.

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