President Reagan has made a prudent decision to refrain for the present from publicly accusing the Soviet Union of violating the SALT II accords, pending the results of interagency studies now under way. His decision has put him in conflict with those who are dedicated to wrecking the SALT regime and any other vestiges of arms control at all costs.
His opponents - and SALT's - are no longer confined to backbenches on Capitol Hill or lower-level positions in the bureaucracy. They have found their way onto the very panel charged with conducting the interagency studies.
Their aim is not to get the United States to raise questions about ambiguous Soviet activities in the forum established by SALT for such a dialogue, the Standing Consultative Commission. They fully support the administration's refusal to take up matters of SALT II compliance in the SCC because to do so would be to imply acceptance of a treaty which they - and the administration - continue to condemn as ''fatally flawed.''
Their aim is instead to have the President go public and denounce purported Soviet cheating. In the view of SALT's detractors, a public denunciation would have several advantages. It would be tantamount to signaling America's intention to undercut the agreement. If President Reagan chose not to run again in 1984, the accusation of cheating could prejudice any future negotiations with the Soviets by his successor. If the President did run, the allegation could neutralize any Democrat who tried to make an issue of arms control.
To all appearances, the accusers are up to their old trick of crying foul before all the facts are in. Yet this time they may have a point. In testing what they themselves have characterized as a variant of their single-warhead SS- 13, modernization permitted under SALT II, the Soviets may have exceeded the ratio allowed by the agreement between the weight of its reentry vehicle and its throwweight. That transgression in itself would have no military significance. Nor is it irreversible.
From two test observations, however, the accusers have inferred that the throwweight of the SS-13 follow-on is considerably greater than that of its predecessor - that the advanced model is actually an entirely new type of missile. Since the Soviets have already begun testing one new ICBM, the MIRVed SS-X-24, the accusers are charging them with having breached SALT II by testing two new types when it allows only one.
From what is publicly known at present, that charge is unwarranted. First, the available evidence is inconclusive. While the data do not refute the charge, neither are they adequate to substantiate it. Second, a close reading of the language of SALT II may actually permit tests - as many as 12 - of more than one new type of ICBM, but not a long enough test program - normally 20 to 30 tests - to satisfy conservative military planners on either side that a new missile is ready for deployment.
That provision in SALT II is probably the ''loophole'' that President Reagan was alluding to in his April 22 press conference. It was inserted at American insistence, however. It is a proviso under Article 4 of the accord which permits each side to test one new ICBM - the MX in the American case. The ''loophole'' was added as insurance against catastrophic failure, technical or political, of MX - in retrospect, an act of considerable foresight. If it became clear after an initial few tests that the MX was not going to fly, the US might still be free to test and deploy another ICBM, so long as it used the same fuel and had the same number of stages as the MX.
Apart from these technical points, the current controversy over alleged cheating obscures three fundamental matters at issue.
First, the accusers have misconstrued the task of verification as one of criminal law in which Uncle Sam, playing sheriff, calls out the Soviet lawbreakers and punishes them for their misdeeds. While this may make a good plot for B westerns, it has little to do with SALT, which is a contract between equal parties to codify strategic parity. If there were a military significant breach of the accords, it would warrant considering the merits of abrogation. If not, but there were still legitimate questions of possible technical violations, these questions should be taken to the SCC, or else raised in diplomatic channels, as the administration apparently has since done.
Second, now is hardly a politically auspicious time for the administration to go public about alleged Soviet SALT violations. Whatever President Reagan says about Soviet actions, the world is bound to hear him against a background in which it is his announced intention to breach the bounds of SALT at two key points. One is the President's own call for accelerated research and development on ballistic missile defense, which could not even reach the testing stage without violating the ABM treaty. The other is the Scowcroft commission's recommendation, which the President has endorsed, to deploy two new types of ICBMs - MX and Midgetman. The commission delicately broaches the subject of circumventing SALT by noting in passing in its report that ''the Soviets are now pushing forward with tests of two even newer ICBMs,'' without saying whether or not these missiles are ''new types'' in possible contravention of the agreement.
Third, and most fundamental of all, the controversy over alleged Soviet violations has obscured the underlying significance of what the Soviets have done. While their behavior often has complex explanations arising from the standard practices and intense competitiveness of Soviet missile design bureaus and political in-fighting at the top of the Soviet hierarchy, the recent pattern of Soviet tests - and indeed the possibility of a technical infringement of SALT II - suggest that the Soviet leadership is sending a not so subtle signal which may get lost in the wrangling on the right over cheating.
The signal is that if the US administration intends to proceed all-out with the nuclear arms race, and to breach SALT in the process, the Soviet Union is in a position to match it stride for stride - with two new ICBMs, new cruise missiles, and at least one submarine-launched ballistic missile already undergoing tests.
That should be a sobering message to those who cavalierly insist that America could outrace the Soviet Union if only it were not hobbled by arms control. That should also be a warning to those who believe that an American buildup can wring concessions from the Soviets at the negotiating table or can threaten them into fundamentally altering their present force posture.