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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush Will Ask Putin for Assistance in Pressuring Iran

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- U.S. President George W. Bush, seeking to change the tone of an increasingly caustic, fraught relationship with President Vladimir Putin, was to urge him Sunday to support a major escalation of pressure on Iran, administration officials said.

On Friday, just 48 hours before Putin was to arrive at the Bush family compound on the edge of this historic seaside town swelled with summer residents, the administration discussed for the first time with Russia and other members of the United Nations Security Council a proposal to require all nations to inspect cargo to or from Iran for illicit nuclear-related material or arms.

The meeting took place by telephone, and the United States was represented by Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs. The proposal was cast as preventive, but U.S. officials know that, like a proposed asset freeze on some Iranian banks, the effect could be to slow Iran's economy.

Two successive resolutions have resulted in less punitive actions against Iran, with modest economic effect. None has achieved the goal of forcing the country to suspend its enrichment of uranium.

While Bush was not expected to discuss the specifics of the U.S. plan with Putin, a senior official, who would not speak for attribution because the conversations with Putin had yet to take place and will be surrounded in secrecy, said Bush was increasingly intent on stopping the Iranian nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it is progressing.

"He will make the point that this is the third set of sanctions against Iran, and now we have to make them really count," the official said.

For the Americans, the effort to squeeze Iran was the most immediate issue on the table with Putin. Washington needs Russia's support as it presses the Security Council to pass the new sanctions by mid-July.

But it was uncertain how Putin would react.

He has sharply criticized the proposed new U.S. missile defense system, which would include installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellites, and made inflammatory characterizations of the United States as an unrestrained power.

U.S. officials say he may be aiming those comments at a domestic audience and seeking to cement an influential role in Russian affairs after he leaves office in the spring.

Some proposals by Britain, which leaked out before Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister on Wednesday, would deny Iranian airlines and ships permission to take off from, land in, or fly over the territory of other nations. A measure that harsh bears little chance of passage.

Bush has told aides that he has doubts about how willing Putin would be to put his country's trade with Iran at risk. Russia supplies much of the equipment and expertise for Iran's main civilian nuclear reactor, and has other ties with Iran, including in the oil sector.

"We imagine that the Russians and the Chinese are going to play slowball here," a senior official involved in the sanctions talks said. "They don't want Iran to get nukes, but they worry what happens if the diplomacy here does not work."

White House officials have portrayed Putin's visit with Bush as a chance to rebuild their relationship. It now holds little of the warmth displayed after their first meeting in early 2001, when Bush said he had "looked the man in the eye" and gained "a sense of his soul."

In fact, it may be the last chance for Bush and Putin to cement a common legacy, with Bush entering the last 19 months of his term and Russia preparing to choose Putin's successor.

The agenda for the visit included social encounters with former President George Bush, including a dinner and possibly some fishing. U.S. officials said Putin would probably seek to avoid any public disagreements.

The U.S. plan for a missile defense system in Europe, which it says is largely to deter Iran's growing missile forces, will certainly be under discussion here.

Speaking with reporters Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russians were dissatisfied with the United States' continued interest in building the system.

Peskov said a surprise Russian proposal to cooperate on a similar system in Azerbaijan two weeks ago was meant as an alternative to the U.S. plan, not, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested, a potential complement to it.

He portrayed the Russian plan as polite acquiescence with the overheated and questionable fears the United States has expressed over Iran's nuclear capabilities.

But U.S. officials dismissed that, and said there was in fact a confluence of American and Russian views on Iran.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity before the meetings, said Russia was coming to agree with the United States' assessment of Iran.

"I do think we see the threat very much the same," the official said. "It's why we've been able to cooperate very well in terms of the nuclear issue, why we've had their support for two UN Security Council resolutions. I think when the time comes, we'll have their support for a third."

Technical experts for both sides have quietly moved forward in seeking a compromise on the missile defense system, senior Defense Department officials say.

Lieutenant General Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, and senior aides held an unannounced meeting Friday with Russian counterparts to begin preliminary technical discussions that included the Azeri radar, an agency official said.

Officials at the White House and at the Kremlin played down expectations of any breakthrough agreements on Iran or the defense system during Putin's stay. Both sides said they considered it an unofficial visit, not a summit meeting.

Administration officials said it was Putin who had initially suggested the timing to meet in the United States, since he was heading to an Olympics committee meeting in Guatemala. Bush decided upon his family compound here.

Both sides portrayed that as a show of respect for Putin.