Top US and Russian diplomats met on Tuesday in Washington to address a host of tricky relations between the countries amid differences over how to confront some of the world's most difficult challenges.
Atop the agenda during the meeting between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was the nuclear dispute with Iran, but the two diplomats also discussed Hamas' emergence in Palestinian politics, and Rice voiced US concerns about democratic backsliding in Russia.
Both countries agree that Iran should not be permitted to develop the ability to produce nuclear weapons, but Washington and Moscow have not been on the same page over how much pressure should be placed on Tehran.
In negotiations within the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) governing board last month, Russia rebuffed an attempt by the US, Britain, France and Germany to seek immediate action by the UN Security Council.
A compromise was worked out that allowed the board to report Iran's refusal to cooperate with the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog, but delayed Security Council action. Another potential disagreement was avoided when Lavrov said that the Russians would not agree to a deal with Iran that allows for a small level of uranium enrichment to take place in Iran.
"There is no compromise, new Russian proposal," Lavrov told a press conference with Rice before meeting at the White House with US President George W Bush.
The US has backed a proposal -- under discussion between the Russians and Iranians -- to enrich uranium for use in Iranian nuclear reactors on Russian soil, to prevent Iran from mastering the technology. The aim is to alleviate concerns that Iran could use uranium enrichment to build nuclear weapons.
Moscow's decision to meet with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which prevailed in the Jan. 25 Palestinian Authority elections, also raised eyebrows in Washington. The US considers Hamas a terrorist organization and vowed not to hold any discussions with the party until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel and previous agreements on the peace process.
Lavrov defended the talks, saying the purpose was to convey international demands that the group give up violence and recognize Israel. The demands were made in a joint statement by the US, Russia, the UN and the EU -- known together as the quartet -- shortly after the Palestinian elections.
"We conveyed to them our commitment to the quartet position and explained that this would be in the interest of the Palestinian people if the quartet position is accepted by Hamas," Lavrov said.
But the key issue that could do the most to damage relations between Russia and the US are worries in Washington that Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has backtracked on building democratic institutions, while centralizing power in the Kremlin and cracking down on civic society and press freedoms.
Some members of the US Congress have objected to Putin chairing the G8 summit -- an annual meeting of the world's leading developed economies plus Russia -- and have called on Bush to boycott the gathering in July in St. Petersburg.
Despite tension over the subject, Rice spoke positively of how Lavrov addressed the issue during discussions on Monday night over dinner and in their meeting on Tuesday at the State Department.