Perhaps the most intriguing words at the Moscow summit came not from Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin but from Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Having staked out a hard-line position against Russia's sale of two light-water nuclear reactors to Iran, warning Moscow there would be "consequences" if it went ahead, Mr. Christopher contended there had been "real progress."
How so? He cited Mr. Yeltsin's agreement not to sell gas centrifuges to Iran for processing spent reactor fuel into weapons-grade plutonium. This would have been "the most dangerous aspect" of the agreement, he said. The secretary also welcomed Moscow's decision to delay implementation of the Iranian deal while it is studied by a commission jointly headed by Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
The Gore-Chernomyrdin combination is the glue of a big-power relationship now strained by tensions over Chechnya, NATO's expansion eastward, tactics in Bosnia and, especially, nuclear trafficking. The two leaders put together international financial arrangements that have helped put the Russian economy shakily back on its feet.
Just what was discussed in private will not be known until the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission does its work. But there have been indications the Russians could be lured away from the $1 billion Iranian sale if they were offered opportunities elsewhere -- perhaps a piece of the controversial project to supply North Korea with reactors less dangerous than its current nuclear weapons program.
President Clinton acknowledged that loss of the Iranian sale would involve "some financial sacrifice" by the Russians. He said it was "in the pipeline, was announced and is legal under international law" -- words that unfortunately could soften the steel in Mr. Christopher's diplomacy.
The United States, however, still has potent leverage. It could reward Russian cooperation with the full status it seeks in the Group of Seven (now almost Eight) of industrial powers due to meet in Nova Scotia next month. And it can determine the rate and extent that NATO will advance to the Russian border -- a matter of extreme military and political sensitivity in Moscow.
On the NATO issue, Mr. Yeltsin said he would accept halfway-house membership in the Partners for Peace arrangement the alliance is offering to former Soviet bloc states, thus reversing himself once again. But the larger question of full NATO expansion eastward remains in abeyance.
The United States and Russia are no longer Cold War enemies. But they also are hardly the World War II allies whose frayed ties were celebrated in this week's V-E Day observances. Frictions will be inevitable. The test of leadership, now and in the future, will be how these two nuclear powers sort out their priorities and find areas of mutual interest. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin, despite all the current difficulties, have done yeoman work in keeping their relationship reasonably positive.