The M184V mutation in HIV reverse transcriptase (RT) is associated with high-level resistance against the nucleoside inhibitor lamivudine as well as diminished viral replication capacity. We have previously demonstrated that HIV variants containing the M184V mutation were relatively unable to successfully undergo compensatory mutagenesis following deletion of an A-rich loop located upstream of the primer binding site (PBS). To understand the mechanisms involved, we synthesized viral RNA templates containing different compensatory mutations that were emergent during the long-term culture of the A-rich loop-deleted viruses. These templates were then used in cell-free reverse transcription initiation assays and in tRNA primer placement assays performed with either recombinant wild-type RT or recombinant RT containing the M184V substitution. The results showed that the RNA template that contained the A-rich loop deletion was impaired in ability to initiate reverse transcription and that the presence of the M184V substitution in RT amplified this effect. Clearance from pausing at position +3 during synthesis of viral DNA was identified as a sensitive step in this reaction that could not be efficiently bypassed with the M184V mutant enzyme. Increased efficiency of initiation was seen with the deleted RNA templates that also contained mutations identified in the revertant viruses, provided that these mutations facilitated formation of a competent binary tRNA/RNA complex. These findings provide biochemical evidence that initiation of tRNA(Lys3)-primed DNA synthesis is an important rate-limiting step in reverse transcription that correlates with viral replication fitness.