THE Iceland summit may well have been the most important event in arms control since the advent of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. But while commentators of various persuasions have treated the meeting as a high-stakes sporting match, in point of fact the meeting changed very little. Reykjavik's true significance lies in placing each side's motives in a clearer light. This is invaluable in understanding Moscow's arms control agenda. The Soviets came to Reykjavik with a clear plan. Their goal? To constrain SDI as a research program. For them, strategic-defense deployments were too remote to be much of an issue. If Mikhail Gorbachev could not succeed in privately cornering Ronald Reagan on the research, Moscow was prepared to do so publicly and place the onus for breakdown on Mr. Reagan.
Thus, Mr. Gorbachev arrived with alternative plans. Plan A involved offering significant cuts in offensive weapons in exchange for major constraints on SDI research. Plan B was what some have characterized as a setup. Once Gorbachev concluded that Reagan could not be moved on the issue of research, Gorbachev created the conditions whereby he - and the world - could expect to hear a clear and emphatic American rejection.
This strategy is all the more obvious from Moscow's summit delegation. The inclusion of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the chief of staff, at the head of the negotiating team is indicative of a readiness to strike a deal. Since the military would have to live with offensive arms cuts, they had to be party to any arrangement. This was Team A.
But what was also striking was the unusually large number of public relations types the Soviets brought along. Typically KGB agents are the largest group on Soviet summit delegations. At Reykjavik this distinction went to the propagandists. This was Team B.
The wrecking job (Plan B) is the most transparent side of Moscow's Reykjavik strategy. Its objectives were evident in its blatant disregard for US official reaction and the unreality of the Kremlin's total disarmament proposal.
First, during the closing hours of the meeting the Kremlin changed the rules of the negotiations in two respects. Whereas the Soviets had previously asserted they could accept a separate deal on medium-range missiles and allow out-of-laboratory ``star wars'' research, at Reykjavik both concessions were withdrawn.
By holding a concrete Euromissile deal hostage to a future ``vision,'' the Soviets hoped to turned allied opinion against SDI. Similarly, Gorbachev knew that many in the US Congress supported star wars reluctantly and did so only for SDI's value as a bargaining chip. The Kremlin probably believed that lawmakers would further cut the program if Reagan appeared unwilling to bargain.
Second, it is hard to believe that a USSR whose superpower status rests on military might could live with the radical solution it proposed. This seems particularly true when a Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear disarmament deal would not be binding on nations that have nuclear weapons pointed at Moscow, especially France and China.
Moreover, it is difficult to comprehend Gorbachev's objections to strategic defenses in a world where neither Washington nor Moscow has nuclear weapons. Under those conditions, the logic of having defenses as insurance against cheating and against the threat posed by other nuclear powers should be compelling for both sides. And even if the Kremlin finds no virtue in defense for itself, why should Moscow object to US defenses in a nuclear-free environment?
This leads to a vital conclusion. If Gorbachev's objections to strategic defense deployments seem unconvincing, perhaps the Kremlin's concerns lie elsewhere. Moscow's SDI fears are for the broader, more immediate implications of the research.
In a 1984 interview, Nikolai Ogarkov, then Soviet chief of staff, warned that technologies emerging in the West threatened to revolutionize conventional warfare. Currently Moscow's mastery of brute arms production provides an advantage over the West. But if future technology makes the quality rather than numbers of weapons decisive in conflict, conventional weapons Moscow can produce could be rendered ``impotent and obsolete.''
We do not need to rely exclusively on such statements to appreciate the degree to which the Soviets fear SDI for the emerging technology it could produce. Gorbachev's policies suggest that he feels the same way. Just as opposition to SDI has been the keystone of Gorbachev's foreign policy, concern for and the need to master advanced technology have been the central theme of Gorbachev's domestic program.
A further clue to Gorbachev's thinking is found in this leader's earlier disarmament plan, announced in January. Buried in the midst of that venture, calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons by the year 2000, was a provision banning exotic conventional arms with the potential of weapons of mass destruction. This description of the effectiveness of emerging conventional arms is almost word for word out of the 1984 Ogarkov interview.
As for the current chief of staff, Sergei Akhromeyev, on several recent occasions he has told visitors he is troubled by SDI spinoffs for conventional weapons.
It is probably no coincidence that within two weeks of the summit, and after a long period of absence, Ogarkov reappeared in public as the author of an article calling for a Soviet crash program - in military high technology.
Alex Gliksman, director of strategic defense studies, United Nations Association of the USA, previously directed the US Senate Foreign Relations Arms Control Subcommittee staff.