ALTHOUGH human rights and regional conflicts will be on the menu when President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev bring their movable summit feast to Reykjavik, the main course will be the disposition of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, or INF. Ironically, INF, which symbolized the deterioration of US-Soviet relations in the early 1980s, may become the new emblem of superpower rapprochement when the two leaders conclude their talks next Sunday. An agreement that does not limit Soviet short-range missiles, however, could lead to a repetition of the INF crisis the United States faced in Europe after SALT II.
At that time, certain weapons such as the Soviet Backfire bomber and the US cruise missile were not counted in the category of strategic reductions. Also included in this so-called gray-area group of weapons was the Soviet SS-20, an intermediate-range missile with three warheads which possessed greater speed and accuracy than the complement of SS-4s and SS-5s it was scheduled to replace.
The Carter administration's failure to place limits on the SS-20 force, which was aimed at Western Europe and, in due course, Japan and China, quickly gave rise to anxieties among the allies that the US might not come to the defense of Europe in the event of a conflict. It was primarily to ensure continuation of the US nuclear guarantee that then West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt proposed a response to the SS-20 which was formalized by NATO in 1979 as the twin-track decision to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles and simultaneously to negotiate their reduction with the Soviets.
Mindful of this history, and of the prolonged crisis INF created within the alliance, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has recently voiced concern that President Reagan might sign an accord with Mr. Gorbachev on intermediate-range missiles without facing up to the threat of Soviet short-range weapons (able to strike targets less than 600 miles away), namely, the SS-21, SS-22, and SS-23. Unless taken into account, these missiles, some of which have already been deployed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, could trigger the same intra-alliance tensions for the next American president that the SS-20 created for Mr. Reagan.
This is not to suggest that progress on intermediate-range missiles should become hostage to West European anxieties about short-range missiles. Japanese and Chinese apprehensions about the estimated 513 SS-20 warheads pointed at them must also factor heavily in an INF outcome. Indeed, failure to reduce the size of the SS-20 force east of the Urals would pose a continuing security problem for the European allies, since these mobile systems could be repositioned in the western part of the Soviet Union.
What is important is that the President, who has thus far played an exceedingly deliberate game with Moscow, not enter precipitously into an agreement that would appear to sacrifice West European (or, equally, Japanese) security for the sake of an arms deal that, in the long run, might prove detrimental to American interests.
To avoid a repetition of the INF crisis in Europe, and particularly in West Germany, which Moscow would again seek to exploit politically, an understanding must be reached in Reykjavik to preclude the Soviets from circumventing an agreement on SS-20 reductions by deploying shorter-range systems.
A noncircumvention understanding could take one of three forms. Ideally, the Soviets could agree to reductions in their short-range missile force, in proportion to INF cuts, as part of an aggregate ceiling on European theater weapons.
Alternatively, an INF agreement could require the Soviets to pull back the SS-21s and SS-23s deployed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, whose short flight times pose an immediate threat to NATO's central front. Or, at the very least, an agreement could be struck to consider, at some future time, reductions of short-range weapons that could augment a conventional attack, perhaps as companion talks to discussions on conventional force reductions in Phase 2 of the Conference on Disarmament in Europe.
Any of these or other ways of dealing with Soviet short-range missiles in the context of an INF agreement would enhance political relations between the US and the European allies, who are chronically but understandably uneasy about their status as nuclear dependents. Resolution of the Soviet short-range missile threat would strengthen American political leadership in the alliance by sending an unmistakable signal to West European publics that the United States remains intent on securing the interests of its allies.
Getting this message across to the youth in West Germany and the United Kingdom, whose nuclear unilateralism stems largely from perceived US indifference to European security, may well be the ultimate payoff of an arms agreement.
Hugh De Santis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.