President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin confirmed at an airport meeting on Wednesday they plan to sign a bilateral deal next week for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the presidents confirmed that they would sign a protocol paving the way for Russia to join the WTO on the sidelines of an Asian economic summit in Hanoi next Sunday.

Bush and Putin also discussed Iran and its nuclear programme during an "extraordinarily positive and friendly" meeting, Peskov added without giving further details.

Putin greeted Bush warmly as the U.S. leader stepped off Air Force One under chilly grey Moscow skies, and handed a bouquet of yellow and red flowers to First Lady Laura Bush.

The two leaders, accompanied by their wives, then walked into the VIP wing of the airport building, chatting and smiling.

Bush was making a refuelling stopover at Moscow's Vnukovo airport and Putin travelled out to meet him -- an unusual step given the poor state of U.S.-Russia relations and the fact that the two men will meet again at the end of the week.

Putin and his wife Ludmila treated the Bushes to a typical Russian meal of herring and beetroot, crab salad, tongue, pickled cabbage, and pancakes with caviare.

The Bushes gave the Putins a gift of a photograph showing the four of them riding in a motorised buggy at the July G8 summit in St. Petersburg, the last occasion the two men met.

The warmth shown by the two leaders in their personal relationship belied serious difficulties in diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington.

DIFFERENCES OVER IRAN

Relations between the U.S. and Russia have been at their lowest ebb in years with Washington criticising Putin's record on human rights and Russia's opposition to the Iraq war and Moscow sniping at what it sees as an overly aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

The United States and its allies accuse Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian energy programme and want tough United Nations sanctions.

But Russia, one of the U.N.'s five permanent Security Council members, dislikes a European draft resolution and wants less restrictive measures with the aim of coaxing Tehran back to the negotiating table.

Russian media and analysts have suggested that Washington may try to extract commitments from Moscow to tough sanctions against Iran in return for supporting Russia's WTO bid.

Negotiations over Russia's entry to the WTO have dragged on for years. Recent sticking points included access for U.S. meat to Russian markets and Russia's willingness to crack down on Internet piracy of films and music.

Russia's backing over Iran is key because Moscow is helping build a nuclear reactor at the Gulf port of Bushehr in Iran, which both sides insist will be used for peaceful purposes only.

Bush and Putin also discussed broader nuclear proliferation issues and the Middle East during their airport meeting which lasted an hour and a half, longer than originally scheduled.