Behind the lifting of President Reagan's sanctions against the Soviet natural gas pipeline lies the skilled hand of Secretary of State George P. Shultz and other pragmatists within the administration.
Chief among them, in addition to Mr. Shultz and other State Department officials, are Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and US Trade Representative William E. Brock.
These men apparently were able to persuade the President - against the more conservative views of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and National Security Advisor William P. Clark - that the pipeline sanctions in the end harmed Western firms and the alliance more than they did the communists.
What remained to be found was a vehicle to allow Mr. Reagan to retreat more or less gracefully from a policy that was throwing the Western alliance into disarray.
That vehicle, according to the president, is an overall allied agreement ''not to engage in trade arrangements which contribute to the military or strategic advantage of the USSR or serve to preferentially aid the heavily militarized Soviet economy.''
Specifically, the US hopes that such an agreement, still to be hammered out in detail, will accomplish these goals:
* An end to extension of cheap credits to Moscow by European firms - backed by their governments - as a competitive device to secure contracts.
* A tightening of controls over Western exports to the Soviet bloc of strategic goods that might have military application.
* Agreement by European governments not to participate in a second and perhaps third natural gas pipeline designed by Moscow to transport Siberian gas to Western markets.
* Agreement among allies not to conclude additional contracts for Soviets gas supplies while the overall Western trade program announced by Mr. Reagan is under way.
Some of these goals - notably credit harmonization and strengthening of controls over strategic exports - have long been sought by several US administrations both Democratic and Republican.
US analysts are cautious about predicting whether the program in fact will substantially alter East-West trade practices. Exports to the Soviet bloc provide big business for Western Europe, creating thousands of jobs at a time when European unemployment is very high.
Where the communist bloc is concerned, the national interests of European countries - which compete sharply with each other for Soviet trade - and those of the US often diverge. An effort must be made to accommodate these conflicting interests within a strategic framework agreeable to the allies.
Lifting of the sanctions, announced by Reagan Nov. 13, means that American, British, French, West Germany, and Italian firms - all of which had been proscribed by the President because they were selling US technology for the pipeline - again are free to contribute to the bast project.
Administration officials seek to minimize a stiff message from Paris that France is not a party to the agreement. From the beginning, the French government of President Francois Mitterrand had denounced the Reagan sanctions as unilateral and illegal and had refused to make concessions to gain their removal.
US conservatives, lead by Mr. Weinberger, had opposed allied participation in the pipeline on the grounds that sales of gas would reap Moscow billions of dollars of hard currency, which would be used to strengthen Soviet armed forces.
Weinberger also argued that Europeans would be in danger of becoming so dependant on Soviet natural gas that they might become hostage to Kremlin diplomacy.
European leaders pledged that deliveries of Soviet gas never would become large enough to limit allied freedom of action. Siberian gas, they noted, would decrease European dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
The trio of officials - Shultz, Mr. Baldrige and Mr. Brock - who helped to persuade Reagan to repeal the sanctions claimed they threatened long-term damage to US exports. The danger, they argued, was that foreign firms and goverments might start to entertain doubts about US reliability as a supplier of contracted goods.