The Tax oncoprotein of human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV1) chronically activates transcription factor NF-kappaB by a mechanism involving degradation of IkappaBalpha, an NF-kappaB-associated cytoplasmic inhibitor. Tax-induced breakdown of IkappaBalpha requires phosphorylation of the inhibitor at Ser-32 and Ser-36, which is also a prerequisite for the transient activation of NF-kappaB in cytokine-treated T lymphocytes. However, it remained unclear how Tax interfaces with the cellular NF-kappaB/IkappaB signaling machinery to generate a chronic rather than a transient NF-kappaB response. We now demonstrate that Tax associates with cytokine-inducible IkappaB kinase (IKK) complexes containing catalytic subunits IKKalpha and IKKbeta, which mediate phosphorylation of IkappaBalpha at Ser-32 and Ser-36. Unlike their transiently activated counterparts in cytokine-treated cells, Tax-associated forms of IKK are constitutively active in either Tax transfectants or HTLV1-infected T lymphocytes. Moreover, point mutations in Tax that ablate its IKK-binding function also prevent Tax-mediated activation of IKK and NF-kappaB. Together, these findings suggest that the persistent activation of NF-kappaB in HTLV1-infected T-cells is mediated by a direct Tax/IKK coupling mechanism.