Dim outlook for Geneva arms talks. Missile defense still key for Reagan's arms team

There is little whooping and hollering in Washington as the seventh round of the superpower arms talks gets under way in Geneva. The United States and the Soviet Union are extraordinarily close to historic accords on reducing nuclear weapons. In theory, a breakthrough is possible. But as diplomatic and arms experts here assess the situation, one of two broad conditions would have to change:

The Soviets would have to de-link an agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe from an omnibus package that includes an agreement on strategic nuclear weapons and space-based defense systems (``star wars'') as well. Moscow has made significant concessions on INF, but it insists on the whole package or nothing. If Moscow changes its position, an INF accord is within reach.

President Reagan would have to be persuaded to make concessions on his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in order to achieve an agreement calling for steep reductions in strategic nuclear arms. But the administration remains deeply divided on the issue, and the Iran-contra affair has added to the internal disarray.

Administration officials do not hold out much hope for early progress. They say the Soviets are playing a waiting game, and, although they may launch an ostensibly bold arms initiative in the next few days, it is likely to be largely a propaganda ploy.

Edward Rowny, a special arms control adviser to the President, says Moscow is calculating that it would take about nine months to negotiate and draft a treaty and get it ratified by the US Senate. So he says the Soviets will pursue the old line of public diplomacy and private stonewalling, biding their time until the end of the year or early in 1988 to begin serious bargaining. The presidential election will not deter them, says Ambassador Rowny.

In the view of independent arms experts, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is still interested in striking a deal with Ronald Reagan, both because he needs a period of stability in US-Soviet relations and because he knows that any pact delivered by a conservative President will be well received in the Senate. Retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a former national-security adviser, suggests the Soviets would be open to compromise on the issue of the SS-18s, their giant land-based missiles, in order to get a strategic arms reduction agreement.

``They might be prepared for concessions, especially if the United States is serious about going to mobile missiles,'' General Scowcroft says. ``The SS-18s lose their attractiveness if there are no targets to hit.''

But President Reagan in turn would have to accept limits on SDI, his visionary program for a space-based defensive shield. The ``bottom line'' arms control dilemma, arms experts say, is the absence in the government of a strong advocate who can get to the President and convince him that he can have an agreement that sharply reduces strategic nuclear arsenals and permits him to test virtually all SDI components.

The Soviets now say they would agree to allow ``fundamental research'' on weapons that might one day be placed in orbit, but they remain firm on not allowing testing of SDI components in space.

Arms control advocates are pressing the administration to be flexible. This week the Committee on National Security, a private group of former leading government officials, including Paul Warnke, a former US arms negotiator, and William Colby, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, released a report urging the President not to insist on testing SDI technology in space.

``The President can very nearly have it both ways,'' an accompanying statement said. ``Our study shows that we can continue a robust research program to determine the feasibility of future strategic defenses while simultaneously achieving deep, stabilizing reductions in offensive weapons.'' But Reagan is deeply and emotionally committed to SDI, and it is not clear that he can be budged. He has proved unmovable on some issues, despite the advice of aides.

``He has to choose between his distant vision and a more limited step with the Soviet Union that could be realized in his own time and enable him to go down as someone who has made positive progress with the Soviets,'' says Scowcroft, who is on the three-man presidential commission studying the National Security Council in the wake of the Iran controversy.

As the Geneva talks resume, right-wing elements in the government are pushing to ensure that the President does not back off on SDI. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has been calling for early deployment of one part of a space-based antimissile system rather than the whole shield at once, something not achievable for more than a decade, if at all. The President has yet to make a decision on the issue.

But the Weinberger suggestion has aroused strong opposition within Congress as well as among arms control supporters in the administration. Critics warn that deployment of a partial-area system would violate and thereby undermine the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty.

Mr. Weinberger appears to be bowing to pressures from conservative lawmakers who fear that without some tangible demonstration that SDI is viable, Congress will not support increased funding. Now that both houses are in Democratic hands, Congress is expected to push hard to force the administration into arms control measures, including returning to the limits of the unratified SALT II Treaty.

One area that may prove to be the most promising for early agreement is nuclear testing. A senior State Department official says the two sides could quickly wrap up an accord on limiting the number and yield of nuclear arms tests.

Responding to the qualms of US opponents of such a treaty, the Soviets are conspicuously addressing the issue of verification. In every area of arms control, Soviet Ambassador Yury Dubinin said yesterday, ``we insist on strictest verification measures, including on-site inspection and open laboratories.''

In a press conference, Ambassador Dubinin said the seventh round of talks can become a ``turning point'' in the work of the two delegations and the ``start of practical preparation'' of a complex of agreements.

The appointment of Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov to head the Soviet delegation, said Dubinin, was made with a view to making the talks ``more active and dynamic.''

Since Reykjavik, say US officials, the Soviets have refused to negotiate in Geneva and have even backtracked on tentative agreements reached at the Iceland summit.

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