US Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, at a breakfast meeting with reporters July 22, discussed three main themes: * The nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and how it might escalate to a level of intolerable burdens for both sides if the stalled SALT II treaty is not eventually ratified by the US Senate.
* The effectiveness of the US response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He said the grain embargo is having an impact.
* The inferences to be drawn from the release by Iranian authorities of American hostage Richard Queen -- chiefly that the captors showed they were not insensitive to the welfare of the hostages and that someone had the authority to order one of them released.
On SALT II, Mr. Muskie -- who put himself among those who believe the ratification of the treaty is in the US national interest -- said he thought the likelihood of the Senate ratifying it was, "as of today, nonexistent." But, he added, the prospects for ratification might be changed if SALT is raised as a presidential campaign issue.
It was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the turn of the year that forced President Carter to acquiesce in the Senate's shelving of the SALT II ratification process.
The Republican Party platform adopted in Detroit earlier this month specifically rejected "the fundamentally flawed SALT II treaty negotiated by the Carter administration." So it was hardly surprising that Muskie should say he expected this to emerge as a campaign issue. If it does, he said, he thinks both the public and military perception of the treaty might change; the implication was clearly "change in favor."
Secretary Muskie said that if there is no ratification of SALT II there will be an escalation of US defense spending. The Soviets, he went on, would match this in a process of action and reaction likely to produce an arms race on a scale "such as the world has never seen."
Both sides, he pointed out, have up to now turned away from that kind of burden -- and it was this, he said, that made SALT II possible.
The Republican platform calls for the US to "ultimately reach the position of military superiority that the American people demand." Muskie told newsmen at the breakfast that the differing geopolitical situations of the USSR and the US are asymmetrical and therefore the US needs to be superior in some aspects -- in naval forces, for example. But the aim of strategic nuclear superiority is not "a stable possibility," he asserted. The Soviets are unlikely to accept it, and so "you trigger an arms race."
Muskie insisted that, as of now, the US and the USSR "have essential equivalence or parity."
On Afghanistan, he maintained that the punitive US boycott against grain sales to the Soviets is having an effect. He said the Russians have had to dip into their strategic grain reserves and that they have been unable to deliver on their expectation of increasing the amount of meat available to each Soviet citizen.
He said he thinks the Kremlin is probably weighing the unexpected cost of the incursion into Afghanistan -- not simply the stubborn Afghan resistance, but also the damage to the Soviet image in the third world and in the world of Islam.
The release of Richard Queen from his long captivity in Iran, in Muskie's view, has not raised hope of any early release of the remaining 52 hostages. But, the secretary said, Mr. Queen's freeing indicated that: (1) faced with the illness of a hostage, the captors showed they were not completely without sensitivity to the well-being of the captives; (2) somebody did have enough authority, when it came to the church, to order Queen's release and have the order promptly obeyed.
Nevertheless, Muskie said, the Ayatollah Khomeini seems very hesitant to assert his authority to the full when it comes to the militants holding the hostages. The secretary implied that the Ayatollah's reluctance in this direction stemmed from doubt that he would necessarily be fully and immediately obeyed.
But, the secretary said, government institutions in revolutionary Iran are gradually being formed -- albeit at an "agonizingly slow" pace and with the fundamentalist clerics emerging as the dominant force. Once a government is in place, he said, there might be a broader agreed perception in Iran that it is in the interest of that nation, as well as in the interest of the US, to have done with the hostage problem by freeing all 52 of them.