UNITED NATIONS – President Bush (search) predicted Friday that Iran will be called to account before the United Nations Security Council over what the United States claims is a rogue nuclear program, but he acknowledged that step may not come as quickly as he wants.
"I am confident that the world will see to it that Iran goes to the U.N. Security Council if it does not live up to its agreements," Bush said following a meting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (search), an ally of both the United States and Iran.
"When that referral will happen is a matter of diplomacy," Bush said. "And that's what we talked about; we talked about how to deal with this situation diplomatically."
His words were a signal that the United States has apparently given up hopes that the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency would vote to send Iran's case before the Security Council when it meets in Vienna next week.
The Bush administration had been lobbying hard for that outcome, but ran into opposition from several nations, including Russia. If the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) delays action on Iran, as is now expected, it will be the second time in a row that the body has skipped an opportunity to initiate punishment for Tehran.
Bush and Putin called one another by their first names and seemed friendly as they spoke to reporters following an Oval Office meeting. Each left his strongest criticism of the other unsaid: Bush didn't say anything about U.S. concern that Putin is overseeing a creep toward authoritarian rule in post-Soviet Russia, while Putin was silent about what Russia views as U.S. slights and double standards over democratic political expansion on old Soviet turf.
Bush thanked Putin for Russian assistance following Hurricane Katrina, and Putin returned to the hurricane frequently during the question and answer session.
"These events, to the entire world, have become a serious lesson, not only for the U.S.," Putin said.
"Today I told George that in Russia we, too, will draw our conclusions" about preparing and planning for similar disasters, Putin said.
Before their meeting, Putin had been quoted as saying he was dumbfounded that images of the destruction on his television screen came from the powerful United States.
Both men stressed ongoing cooperation in fighting terrorism — the foundation of improved U.S.-Russian relations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Bush also said he wants expanded economic ties with Russia, and noted that Russia can sell energy the United States is keen to buy.
Although U.S.-Russian bonds have frayed a bit in the last two years, nuclear nonproliferation remains an area of strong cooperation. That cooperation includes the present effort to persuade North Korea to give up its declared nuclear program, but the United States and Russia have parted ways over Iran.
Putin made a point Friday of noting that he had just met with Iran's new hard-line president during the United Nations summit in New York, and that the Iranian leader had repeated his assurance that Tehran is interested only in producing energy, not nuclear weapons.
The United States is openly skeptical of that claim, although Bush said nothing about it Friday. Bush noted, and Putin agreed, that the two leaders do share the goal of preventing Iran from building a bomb.
"Now, as regards as to how we can control this situation, there are many ways and means to do so," Putin added.
Russia is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant, and the Russian Foreign Ministry recently said it sees no basis for referring Tehran to the Security Council (search).
The Security Council could impose punitive economic sanctions on Iran if it agrees that Iran has worked to disguise a covert weapons program.
The European Union has taken the lead in trying to persuade Iran to halt development of nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons. In exchange, Iran would win economic concessions.
If the case does end up before the Security Council, Russian cooperation could be critical. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia could veto any resolution punishing Iran or could abstain.
China also could veto any possible punishment. The White House acknowledged Wednesday that Bush was unable to get a commitment on Iran during his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.