Washington — Two weeks after the meeting in Reykjavik, doubts are surfacing that a strategic arms agreement will be reached during the Reagan presidency. Diplomatic and arms experts still believe the Iceland exercise significantly advanced the superpower debate. They see the outlines of a ``grand compromise'' taking shape that would satisfy the concerns of both President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
But the two sides are still a long way from settling down to the tough work required to break the impasse over the key issue of strategic defense.
``There are severe and difficult differences,'' says William Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and an arms specialist. ``There is a clash between two strategic postures, and even after Reykjavik the SDI battle is still there.''
The American and Soviet public relations campaigns and emotional roller coaster atmosphere of the past two weeks are not seen as helpful. Analysts say this points less to the determination to come to grips with the complex arms issues in a spirit of serious deliberation than to a desire to play out the Reykjavik meeting for domestic political consumption.
Some experienced diplomatic experts say that the tit-for-tat expulsion war this week may have a negative effect on the arms control process.
``This is a total lack of looking ahead at what the next round will bring,'' says Mark Garrison, director of Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development and a former diplomat in Moscow. ``It also makes it difficult for the Soviets to be flexible on arms control and try to find a solution to the core problem -- defining the limits on the testing of SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars''].''
What urgently needs to be done now, arms control experts say, is for the two sides to sit down quietly and hammer out the definitions and limits on SDI so as to meet the requirements of both sides. The Soviets need to be satisfied that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) will not be gutted and the President must be satisfied that enough of SDI can go forward to meet his political requirements and the scientific possibilities.
But there clearly is a continuing struggle within the administration over how to proceed, with factions pulling in different directions. The State Department opposed the massive diplomatic expulsions favored by the Justice Department, but was overruled. And although Mr. Gorbachev delivered an angry speech accusing the Reagan administration of trying to undermine chances for an arms agreement, the White House chose to put a positive cast on his remarks.
On the campaign trail Mr. Reagan is thus able to play up his toughness on SDI and America's military posture even while claiming that he is making progress in his arms discussions with Gorbachev.
The question is whether, once the elections are over, the public posturing will stop and the administration will move forward with arms proposals in Geneva that can break the SDI impasse. Some observers are skeptical. Reagan is deeply committed to SDI, which he envisages as a nationwide space-based defense against nuclear missiles, and it is doubted that anyone in his present circle of advisers can persuade him to compromise.
``We will ride this administration out without a convergence,'' says an arms expert on Capitol Hill.
US officials hold out hope for agreements in medium-range nuclear missiles and nuclear testing. But these are peripheral to the central issue of strategic nuclear weapons and SDI.
Mr. Hyland, who was an arms control aide to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, says the Reykjavik breakthrough was Reagan's agreement to adhere to the ABM Treaty for 10 years before deploying any space-based missile defense system. If Gorbachev would agree to some testing of SDI, Hyland says, he would in effect have control over the program, because getting congressional support for SDI would become increasingly difficult and public attention would shift in focus to the treaty.
But, he adds, Gorbachev will not make the concession if Reagan keeps ``beating the drum'' about how the US won at Iceland. Nor will Gorbachev persuade Reagan by saying SDI is ``a big evil.''
Meanwhile, the tentative agreements reached in Reykjavik for reducing offensive nuclear weapons have caused a storm of confusion and concern in Washington and Western Europe. The US proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles in 10 years is viewed as unrealistic and dangerous by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and NATO allies alike.
To complicate matters, Gorbachev and Reagan do not even agree on who said what to whom in Reykjavik on this subject (a disagreement reminiscent of the post-Yalta days). In any case, the Soviets would never accept zero ballistic missiles, for this would leave the US with an advantage in bombers and cruise missiles; the US would not agree to the elimination of all nuclear weapons, as the Soviets propose, because this would leave the Warsaw Pact with an advantage in conventional forces. These and other concerns will make it exceedingly difficult to reach agreements.