The Bush administration is looking to Russia for diplomatic help in harnessing Iran's nuclear program despite growing U.S. criticism of Russian domestic policies.

A recent law requiring all non-governmental organizations to register with a state commission was criticized again Tuesday by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The law is viewed by its defenders as a measure to crack down on extremism. Critics find in it evidence that President Vladimir Putin, in an authoritarian move, is tightening controls on democratic and humanitarian activities.

"We have previously expressed our concern about the recent law," McCormack said in tersely registering U.S. opposition again.

However, this displeasure was overshadowed by the urgency of trying to line up Russia to challenge Iran's nuclear programs — first in the International Atomic Energy Agency at a special meeting Feb. 2-3 and then at the United Nations if the agency sends the dispute there.

Russia has signaled it favors a go-slow approach. At the same time, it is offering to defuse some of the concern about Iran's activities by offering to shift enrichment activities to Russia so they could be monitored as designed for civilian and not weapons purposes.

The European Union's senior diplomat, Javier Solana, said while holding talks last week in Washington that it remains a live idea.

McCormack said the Russian proposal, if accepted by Iran, "would provide the international community some comfort that Iran couldn't use that mechanism (enrichment) to try to obtain nuclear weapons."

However, McCormack described the Russians as frustrated in their efforts to intercede with Iran.

In Moscow, after a meeting with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, the office of Russia's security council secretary, Igor Ivanov, issued a brief statement saying the Iranian nuclear dispute must be solved by diplomatic efforts within the U.N. nuclear agency.

Meanwhile, at a conference at the Nixon Center, Dimitri Simes, president of the private group, said "the state of Russian democracy today is bleak and getting bleaker."

Simes said the judicial system is corrupt and totally controlled by the government and that the Duma, the Russian legislature, is a rubber-stamp body.

"You are allowed to express any opinion you like," he said, "as long as you are ineffective."

And President Bush's "special relationship" with Putin in which the two leaders spoke frequently to each other, stopped two years ago, he said.

Simes, who visited Russia last week, said Putin and his associates "have destroyed the checks and balances" common to democracies.

Simes said the law requiring registration of non-governmental groups was not so bad as the original draft. But Simes said in an interview that "the trouble is the law will be implemented by a Russian bureaucracy with no role for the courts."

The other principal speaker, Lorne Cramer, president of the International Republican Institute, which is partly U.S.-financed, said the Bush administration was silent about repression in Russia during its first term.

But now, he said, "we are seeing the first manifestation of breaking our silence."