Carter administration officials doubt that world tensions will permit the strategic arms-limitation treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union to be ratified this year.
Nevertheless, they still hope for an opening that will make ratification possible within a few months -- because, in their view, it may be this year or never.
The fate of SALT II now depends on variables that have little to do with the merits or demerits of the treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons. The variables include most notably the question of public, and Senate, confidence in President Carter and the still-uncertain outcomes of the Iranian and Afghanistan crises.
Says one White House official: "If the Iran crisis is resolved and we've done the right things in the post-Afghanistan period to create a sense of confident that we're on the right path, then we've got the political conditions to bring the treaty to a vote."
In the meantime, he said, "We're trying to keep SALT II alive and warm on the back burner."
Recent developments in Iran and Afghanistan have not been encouraging: Initial results from the Iranian parliamentary elections point to new difficulties for those Iranian politicians who want quickly to resolve the hostage problem. And the latest indications from Afghanistan are that the Soviets are reinforcing their troops, increasing supplies, and digging in for the long haul.
In addition, confidence in President Carter's diplomatic skill was damaged recently, first by the administration's mishandling of a United Nations vote on Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territories and second by Pakistan's rejection of an offer of American military aid.
Administration officials fear that if a SALT ratification vote is delayed until next year the Soviets would then reopen the complex question of extending the protocol to the SALT treaty, which limits certain weapons systems but which remains in force only until Dec. 31, 1981. The Soviets considered the protocol a precedent-setting document, but delay would dilute its usefulness to them.
Delay until 1981 also would mean a renewal of Senate committee hearings -- with the consequent danger of new amendments to the treaty being introduced.
Under the terms of the treaty, the Soviets are required to dismantle 300 of their nuclear missile launchers by the end of 1981. But American experts say that, should the ratification vote be put off until that year, there is no way the Soviets could comply. The dismantling, the experts say, cannot be done with less than a year.
So far, according to US officials, neither the Soviets nor the Americans have violated any of the terms of SALT II. President Carter declared at his March 14 news conference that he intends to comply with the treaty as long as the Soviets do. but in an atmosphere of continuing hostility between the US and the Soviet Union, officials expect that pressures will eventually grow on both sides to exceed the limits established by SALT.
In their view, it is precisely at such moments of uncertainty, tension, and potential conflict that a treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons is most needed. This is because SALT provides an element of certainty to a largely uncertain relationship and thus reduces the prospects of nuclear war.
Administration officials say the following are among the chief dangers of a world without the SALT:
* Both sides could conceal new weapons developments. The resulting uncertainties would increase the pressure on both sides to speed the contsruction of new weapons. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown said in his recently released posture statement: "Both sides probably would increase their strategic forces as hedges against uncertainty, resulting in less, rather than more, security for the United States."
* With no limits on the number of warheads allowed per missile, the Soviets would be able to increase their warheads to the point where they would threaten the new MX missile system being developed by the US.
* Without SALT, Western European support for last December's historic decision to place new nuclear weapons on European soil might begin to erode. The Western Europeans went along with the decision on the understanding that it be implemented within the framework of SALT and continuing arms-control negotiations.
* Although it is not likely for the immediate future, a failure to ratify SALT may lead eventually to pressures from military men on both sides in favor of building new anti-ballistic missiles. This might then lead to disolution of one of the monuments of arms control, the treaty of 1972 limiting such missile systems.