Washington — The Reagan administration is preparing a compromise proposal that would capitalize upon the arms control progress made at the Iceland summit. The new proposal will be put on the table by American negotiators at ongoing arms-control talks in Geneva. Experts both inside and outside the administration caution that some extremely tough and complex bargaining is ahead. But some say that the outlines of a possible agreement are already coming into focus.
Some of the toughest bargaining in fact may be taking place within the Reagan administration itself -- over what technologies will be explored in pursuit of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Such a compromise would be founded on two assumptions.
One is that both Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan are genuinely seeking major reductions in superpower nuclear arsenals, and are not engaged in rhetorical posturing.
Members of both the United States and Soviet delegations at Reykjavik say they were struck by the depth of commitment of both men to arms reductions. One American participant says that although the idea of an end to the nuclear arms race may seem farfetched, ``I think they really believe it.'' A Soviet diplomat says, ``General Secretary Gorbachev really wants to reduce the threat of nuclear war to mankind.''
The other assumption is that ``give'' in one area -- reductions in strategic nuclear weapons -- makes ``give'' in another -- SDI research -- possible.
The exact American proposals are being kept secret. But interviews with experts in and out of government give some indication of American goals.
The Reagan administration apparently believes a separate agreement on reductions in intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe is still possible.
The Kremlin seems of two minds about that. Mr. Gorbachev says the Soviet proposals at Reykjavik were part of a package. Soviet arms control negotiator Viktor Karpov, meanwhile, suggested last week that a separate agreement was possible. Later, however, Mr. Karpov tried to resolve the apparent contradiction by suggesting there could be negotiations on separate parts of an overall accord.
One United States analyst suggests the Kremlin may genuinely have been unprepared for the outcome of the Reykjavik summit, and is now uncertain about how to address the INF issue. But, he says, ``They will ultimately be forced to agree to a [separate] INF proposal,'' because the Soviets earlier assured Western European governments that an INF agreement would not be held hostage to an agreement on SDI.
Some US experts expect that an eventual INF agreement will be quite similar to the last proposals on the table at Reykjavik -- withdrawal of all American and Soviet medium-range missiles from Europe. The US would be able to keep 100 medium-range missiles in the US; the Soviet Union could keep 100 in Asia. Such an INF agreement might be welcomed in Moscow, according to US experts, because Gorbachev would have then achieved a longstanding Soviet goal of getting US medium-range missiles out of Europe.
On the other hand, the US could plausibly argue that other elements in the American nuclear arsenal -- bombers, submarines and sea-launched cruise missiles -- can adequately protect Europe from a reduced Soviet nuclear threat.
James P. Rubin, an analyst at the private Arms Control Association (ACA), says one sticking point might be the duration of the agreement. The Soviets may lean toward an indefinite agreement, in order to permanently bar American missiles from Europe. On the other hand, they may not want an open-ended agreement, since that might limit their flexibility in responding to planned modernization of British and French nuclear forces.
The Reagan administration believes that 50-percent cuts in certain kinds of long-range nuclear weapons -- an idea agreed to, at one point, during the Reykjavik summit -- are indeed possible. Mr. Rubin notes that the proposed cuts, as outlined in Reykjavik, amount to important Soviet concessions, yet they would still allow the US to build up certain categories of weapons. The Soviets would, he says, ``have a hard time taking back those concessions.''
An American strategist suggests the Soviets were, in fact, serious about deep cuts. ``Those are pretty big cards to put on the table unless you're sure that the President won't pick them up,'' he says.
In fact, the Soviets may well have known that President Reagan would not accept the cuts -- so long as they were tied to a stipulation that SDI research cannot proceed outside the laboratory. ``I'd say four-fifths of what we're spending our money on now is [outside] of the laboratory,'' says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.
But after reviewing the give-and-take at Geneva, some American experts have concluded that there is room for compromise.
The assumption is that the Soviets may, in fact, be willing to accept some SDI research outside the lab, as long as actual components of an SDI system are not tested in space over the next 10 years.
But can the US accept such a restriction? One official acknowledges this debate will have to be settled within the administration. It will be, he predicts, a battle between those who favor early testing of space-based devices that would presumably knock down nuclear missiles while they are climbing, and those who believe the US can concentrate on ground-based devices that would hit warheads as they descend.
The dispute is more than technological; it is also political. It is a dispute over how best to convince Congress that SDI is an attainable goal.
President Reagan likes to refer to SDI as an ``insurance policy.'' But as one US official notes, the size of the policy, and the premiums to pay for it, depend on the risk that is being insured against.
As Senator Stevens notes, ``An SDI system would be a far different system if you only have to design it to handle a third-country or a terrorist threat'' instead of the present Soviet nuclear arsenal. For that reason, some American strategists suggest a slower-paced SDI testing program, coupled with deep cuts in both superpowers' nuclear arsenals, could form the basis for an agreement.
But one prerequisite seems to be a US commitment to abide by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty for the next decade. ``The deal waiting to be cut,'' says Rubin, is that the US agrees to abide by the ABM treaty -- the traditional and narrow definition of it -- and work out differences [with the Soviets] at the Standing Consultative Commission,'' a US-Soviet group set up to mediate disputes over alleged treaty violations.
But, says Rubin, that sort of commitment is incompatible with a crash SDI program. Even if the Reagan administration can resolve internal disagreements over what kind of SDI tests the US needs to conduct, says Rubin, US and Soviet negotiators at Geneva will have an extremely difficult time agreeing on language that permits only certain kinds of SDI testing and research.
At Reykjavik, President Reagan agreed to the 10-year commitment to the ABM treaty demanded by Gorbachev. At issue now is the manner in which the treaty will be observed. And that, in turn, depends on the kind of SDI testing the US wants to undertake.