In less than two months, Iran hopes to celebrate the birth of cloned sheep, the first such attempt in the Middle East and part of the country's ambitions — along with its nuclear and space programs — to become a regional high-tech powerhouse.

The cloning program has won backing from Iran's Shiite Muslim religious leaders, who have issued religious decrees authorizing animal cloning but banning human reproductive cloning. A majority of Iran's nearly 70 million people are Shiites.

In contrast, Sunni Muslim religious leaders — including senior clerics in Saudi Arabia — have banned cloning altogether, even in animals.

The cloning effort is a result of Iran's work in stem cell research. Officials say researchers tried to impregnate five sheep with cloned embryos, and one of the sheep is expected to deliver twins on Feb. 14. The gestation period for sheep is about five months.

"Of five surrogate mothers, three of the sheep are pregnant. One of them has two babies in its womb, an unprecedented occurrence in the world's brief cloning history," said Saeed Kazemi Ashtiani, head of Iran's Royan Institute.

The latest ultrasound performed by veterinarians last week showed the twins in good shape.

"Fortunately, everything is pointing in the right direction. We appear to be in a perfect shape," Ashtiani said.

Park Se-pill, director of the Maria Infertility Medical Institute based in Seoul, South Korea, said the expected births "shows that Iran has the technology to create cloned sheep like Dolly," the world's first cloned sheep, born in 1996.

Scientists at Royan Institute also tried to clone a cow, but the pregnancy failed in the early weeks.

Ashtiani said cloning sheep and cows could lead to advances in medical research, including using cloned animals to produce human antibodies against infectious diseases.

"Our final aim of animal cloning is to create ground for new research in the country and prepare Iran scientifically to carry out cloning treatment — provided global agreements are reached," Ashtiani said.

Under a 20-year development plan, Iran aims to become a base for high technology and a scientific powerhouse in western Asia and a regional dominant power by 2025.

Cloning has provoked ethical concerns, especially over the possibility that it might be used in humans.

Ashtiani said Iranian researchers would never try to clone a human being because it would not be allowed in the country.