Arms talks offer broad opportunities to both superpowers

The Reagan White House in Washington continued over the past week with arrangements for a new chapter in US-Soviet relations. The foreign ministers of the two countries will hold the first formal talks in Geneva on Jan. 7 and 8 to chart the way for the two superpowers back into a search for arms controls. The main achievement to date is agreement that they will lump together the three types of possible nuclear arms controls which heretofore have been under separate tents - long-range, medium-range, and outer space weapons.

President Reagan has confirmed publicly that he has been ''unable'' to find a suitable position in Washington for his present UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. This tends to confirm, in turn, the seriousness of his interest in the search for an easier form of coexistence with the Soviets. Mrs. Kirkpatrick belongs to the ''neoconservative'' branch of the Reagan political household. The neoconservatives generally oppose accommodations with the Soviets.

Arrangements are also going forward for a possible revival of the search for peace in the Middle East during the New Year. But it is unclear yet whether the new talks with the Soviets about weapons will broaden over to other subjects such as the Middle East, or divert attention from the Middle East.

The week saw a resumption of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iraq after a 17-year break. President Francois Mitterrand of France visited Syria. It was the first visit there by a French head of state since Syria obtained its independence from France in 1946. Yasser Arafat was formally reaffirmed as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The three moves all go under the heading of stage setting for an attempt to revive momentum toward a long-term settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. One assumption is that Israel is in such deep financial and economic troubles from its invasion of Lebanon that it may be inclined toward a compromise that is reasonable.

Iraq, by renewing formal relations with the US, gains a better chance to play a role in whatever negotiations may open up about the Middle East. It moves itself back toward a middle position between the US and the USSR. It associates itself with the more moderate Arab countries - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

President Mitterrand presumably thinks that by restating French interest in the Middle East he may be able to play a minor role in whatever happens there. Mr. Arafat has to stay on as at least titular head of the PLO if he is to stay in the game during what may turn out to be an interesting Middle East year.

Back in Washington, President Reagan has a full plate, even without any Middle East item. He learned this week that the deficit is going to be worse - by a wide margin - than he has been assuming, and this in turn means a rising demand for new taxes which he is pledged against. There will be heavy demands on his attention and energies for some resolution of the awesome problem of reducing the deficit without raising taxes.

Whatever White House time and energy is unclaimed in that deficit-tax dilemma may be needed for East-West affairs as Secretary of State George Shultz moves along in his talks with the Soviets. How far is the President prepared to go along that road? The answer will be forged in a back room struggle between those who think that it would be a good idea to seek easier relations between the two superpowers and those who do not.

Arms talks are in part an end in themselves. But they are also important, and perhaps more important, as a vehicle for resuming a regular dialogue between the superpowers. The two nations inhabit the same planet. Each is weighted down with enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons. Their relationship involves inevitable conflicts of interest. If those conflicts should lead to nuclear war, the minimum estimated US loss of life would be 45 million people.

The above facts push responsible people in both Washington and Moscow to search for ways of curbing and managing the conflicts of interest. Nothing prevents George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko from roaming over various other subjects after they have finished a particular discussion aobut nuclear weapons.

And there are plenty of other such subjects. During the past week White House officials disclosed an intention to double the amount of funds for sending weapons to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan. This could be one way of telling the Soviets that Washington does not want Soviet weapons going to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or to the rebels in El Salvador. A trade-off in such matters is something that can be discussed, even if a balanced deal might be almost inconceivable.

The Middle East is an area where US and Soviet interests have reached the point of confrontation in the past, and might again. During this past week Israel used US warplanes to bomb alleged PLO positions in a part of Lebanon that is also occupied by Syrian troops using Soviet anti-aircraft weapons.

The Shultz-Gromyko talks in Geneva next month will open up a broad opportunity. But no one, not even Mr. Reagan himself, can yet know how far either side will be able to walk into that opportunity.

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