Superpower summitry is gathering steam. The dramatic announcement that President Reagan will meet with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, Oct. 11 and 12 points to their determination to come to a meeting of minds about a full-scale summit in the United States.
Diplomatic experts suggest that this preliminary minisummit will help take the heat off Mr. Gorbachev, who does not want to go to a summit in the US unless there is progress on arms control. Gorbachev proposed the Iceland get-together, and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze has made clear that arms control remains the chief obstacle to better relations.
If a US summit meeting cannot be cobbled together this year, diplomatic experts say, the Iceland meeting would at least keep the bilateral momentum going. And Gorbachev would not have to back down from his minimum requirement that he will visit the United States only when arms control results are assured.
``The timing of the [Iceland] meeting -- before the fall elections -- strikes me as a remarkable demonstration that the Soviets will give priority to superpower relations without regard to the political timetables in the US,'' says Alton Frye, an arms expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``That has to be an important measure of their seriousness.''
On the President's side, US officials suggest that this is a window of opportunity to break the logjam. If Reagan and Gorbachev can work something out in the arms control area, this will reduce the likelihood that agreement will be stymied in Washington because of opposition by administration hard-liners.
Despite many hurdles still to be surmounted, US officials and arms experts see possibilities for agreement in several areas:
Prospects are particularly bright for an agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe (INF). These medium-range missiles do not play a central role in the security considerations of either side. But a drawdown of Soviet SS-20s targeted on Western Europe, and of the US Pershing 2s and cruise missiles on the NATO side, would improve the political atmosphere and lend impetus to the talks on strategic arms.
Both sides are now talking about limiting medium-range forces to about 100 warheads each in Europe, which would require Moscow to dismantle more than 1,000 warheads. Among the sticking points are the SS-20s in Asia, Soviet short-range missiles, and the mix of US cruise and Pershing missiles. Verification is the biggest obstacle.
On the issue of nuclear testing, Soviet efforts to interest the US in a comprehensive test ban have been repeatedly rebuffed. But pressure is building on the administration -- from the European allies and from Congress -- to consider putting a quota on the number of tests permitted and sharply reducing the kilotonnage below the present 150-kiloton limit.
Strategic nuclear arms pose the area of greatest difficulty because of the President's resolve to push ahead with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.'' But the sides have come within striking distance on overall reductions in offensive weapons, with the US proposing about 7,500 warheads and the Soviets 8,000. The stumbling block is the sublimits, i.e., the ceilings on individual categories of weapons.
Even if an agreement is reached on offensive arms, the Soviets will continue to demand that it be linked to restraints on star wars. This entails reviewing the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty, which prohibits testing and development of exotic space-based weapons.
The two sides have come closer together on the issue of extending the treaty, with Reagan proposing that no SDI deployment take place for 7 years and Gorbachev now indicating he might accept a shorter period than 15 to 20 years, as initially proposed. But the more obstinate problem remains of defining precisely what kind of research, testing, and development is permitted in the intervening period.
``There is some Soviet flexibility on ABM,'' a key State Department official says. ``The Soviets aren't opposed to more strategic defense, they're concerned about the US breaking out and surging ahead. Land-based territorial defense is attractive to them and they would be prepared to modify the ABM Treaty.''
Arms specialists suggest that at a summit meeting the two leaders could agree upon the broad outlines of a strategic arms accord, something less than the kind of agreement reached at Vladivostok, which served as the framework for the negotiation of SALT II. This could set the overall numbers of warheads and launchers. Then the SDI issue could be handled in subsequent negotiations coupled with talks on offensive weapon sublimits.
It cannot be ruled out that the upbeat atmospherics on both sides are politically motivated. The administration has an incentive to sound positive about arms control because this is a bargaining chip with Congress on the defense budget. The Soviets may be sounding hopeful because this pressures the US to deliver.