Mikhail Gorbachev's idea of an interim summit in Iceland with President Reagan once again underlines how keen he is for an agreement on the main areas of arms control. The Soviet leader's eagerness is directly related to his ambitious plans for economic and political reform inside his country. The lack of an arms agreement is a dangerous distraction, both financially and politically, for Mr. Gorbachev.
[The Soviet leader's eagerness for good relations with the US may have been evidenced Saturday, when he called Mr. Reagan to brief him promptly on the Soviet nuclear submarine accident some 500 miles east of Bermuda. Story, Page 2.]
Gorbachev's first priority is the radical reshaping of the Soviet Union's economic system. Part of the money needed to do this will come from the defense budget, but he cannot concentrate his time or the country's resources on economic change until the ever-present threat of an arms race is eliminated.
The price of defense for the Soviet Union is very high. Though Western analysts are not certain how much Moscow spends annually on defense, the general estimate is that it amounts to about 14 percent of the country's gross national product. This is roughly twice the amount spent by Washington.
Ultimately, Gorbachev supporters argue, the success of the economic reforms will enhance the Soviet Union's position in the world. Now, one official says, the Soviets are viewed as ``militarily powerful, but economically incompetent.'' Gorbachev's reforms aim to turn the country into an economic superpower.
But the reforms have far to go. Though Gorbachev seems firmly in command, his domestic policies are meeting with considerable resistance. The opposition, from groups whose interests are threatened by the changes, and from conservatives who suspect that the reforms are an erosion of socialism, is said to be growing.
On the foreign front, some Soviet leaders are deeply suspicious of United States motives, and therefore deeply unwilling to see a reduction in the military budget. Though it is generally assumed that many foreign policy conservatives are in the higher echelons of the military, at least one high-ranking civilian member of the Politburo, Vladimir Shcherbitsky, seems to have deep reservations about both domestic and foreign policy.
The lack of an arms control agreement reinforces the position of Gorbachev's opponents. Washington's apparent lack of interest in the subject strengthens the argument of foreign-policy conservatives. And Gorbachev has already committed himself to respond vigorously, should the US ever deploy its space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (or ``star wars''). At the very least, that commitment presumably prevents him from cutting back on defense expenditures as much as some of his economic theorists would like. At the most, it will force him to engage in a costly weapons race with the US.
The present deadlock on arms control prevents a major reassessment of the political and military role of the armed forces in Soviet society. But Gorbachev, who has already presided over major changes in nearly all areas of Soviet life, has given strong hints that he wants to make some changes here too.
Most of Gorbachev's recent predecessors have been good friends of the military. Leonid Brezhnev ``worked untiringly to strengthen the economic and defensive power of the Soviet Union,'' the current edition of the armed forces' Military Encyclopedic Dictionary writes.
Gorbachev's attitude towards the military is less generous. In his report to the 27th Communist Party Congress last February, Gorbachev noted that the armed forces ``have modern arms and equipment'' -- an apparent hint that they did not need any further strengthening. A Soviet commentator close to Gorbachev's viewpoint has described the leader's policy towards the military as one of ``minimal satisfaction'' of defense needs.
The military is also becoming politically less prominent. For the first time since 1973, the country's defense minister does not have full membership (voting) in the Politburo. And there are also signs that the party and the civilian wing of the government are taking a more active interest in national security planning.
Gorbachev emphasizes that national security is increasingly becoming a political problem. The armed forces now seem to be sharing responsibility for arms control policy with the Communist Party Central Committee and the Foreign Ministry.
In the Foreign Ministry, a veteran arms control negotiator, Viktor Karpov, has been put in charge of a new department dealing with arms control and disarmament. But a Soviet source says that Mr. Karpov's responsibilities will be even broader than this: The new department will also carry out many of the functions performed by the US State Department's bureau of political and military affairs. ``In its modest way,'' the source says, the change is ``a revolution in policymaking.''
Meanwhile Lt. Gen. Viktor Starodubov has moved to the Central Committee's international division, where he too seems to be handling arms control issues.
The key to any further change in political and financial priorities, however, seems to be a breakthrough in arms control. If Gorbachev can end the deadlock there, he can then turn all his energies to pushing through his domestic reforms.