Moscow's weekend offer once again to separate a Euromissile deal from strategic arms control is viewed by American political observers primarily as a bid to advance comprehensive arms control. Much tough bargaining remains ahead, but the Soviet move could open the way within the next year for the most sweeping arms control in the nuclear era. This hope emerges from interviews with several United States senators on the observers' team visiting here, Feb. 27 through today, to monitor the superpower negotiations in Geneva.
The visit coincides not only with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's latest offer, but also with a practical victory of moderates over hard-liners in Washington and with the establishment of a team in the White House that for the first time in four months could formulate a coherent US response to the Soviet offer.
The Soviet move came within four days of congressional deflection last Tuesday of the hawks' attempt to commit the Reagan administration to rejig testing of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') so it would shatter the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and probably also the current negotiations. The Soviet bid also came within 24 hours of the replacement of the discredited Donald Regan as presidential chief of staff by Howard Baker, a man with broad foreign affairs experience.
Conspicuously absent from the senators' (whether Democrat or Republican) initial reactions is any dismissal of Mr. Gorbachev's latest offer as mere propaganda intended to lull European public opinion.
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island commented, ``I think it's a healthy development.''
Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska stressed the importance of a ``broad gauged'' settlement not just confined to Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF). ``I don't think it's possible to split them off entirely.... Interests are clearly definable that really force you to the conclusion that [the Soviets] are out to have a comprehensive agreement.''
Some indication of Soviet eagerness to advance all three areas of negotiation - INF, and strategic offensive and defensive weapons - came in the Soviet call for a joint plenary session of all three teams to present the new Soviet proposal formally today.
Sen. Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee also focused on the possibility of comprehensive arms control agreements. ``I believe there's an historic opportunity due to the convergence of forces both in the Soviet Union and the US.... The essential trade-off is deep cuts in ICBMs with sublimits on those we characterize as most threatening, namely the heavy multiple-warhead accurate missiles which comprise the backbone of the Soviet arsenal (and deep cuts in our own ICBM force) and on the other hand a period of nondeployment of SDI lasting approximately 10 years during which time a set of limitations on testing would be agreed to not only on SDI but for similar Soviet activities as well.''
All the senators portrayed the hot debate in Washington for the past two weeks over the narrow or broad interpretation of the ABM Treaty as being superseded for the time being by what now takes place in the talks.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana described the meeting the senators had last Tuesday with Paul Nitze, presidential arms control adviser, and Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense, as a ``consultation process'' with Congress and with European allies on the subject of the ABM Treaty and the negotiations. He said that Abraham Sofaer, the State Department's legal adviser, would not be presenting his further findings on the legal interpretation of the treaty until April 30. The Defense Department list of SDI tests that would require the broad interpretation ``is still being formulated,'' he said, and Congress was given the ``clear feeling'' that ``testing [that would go beyond the narrow interpretation] is not imminent.''
``[Such testing is] not current, [is] not going to occur until there's been thorough consultations with Congress and with the allies and until the President believes these activities would be warranted. So we are in an interim period of sorts, and it's an important period for progress, we believe, in the negotiations here,'' Mr. Lugar said.
This postponement of a showdown is a tactical defeat for those hard-liners in the Reagan administration who sought to create a quick fait accompli by accelerating SDI testing to break out of the ABM Treaty and scuttle arms control talks. So is their failure - contrary to press reports in Washington last week - to get Reagan to issue instructions to the Geneva negotiators that would confine them to discussing any strategic defense deal only in terms of the permissive interpretation of the treaty.
On the question on whether the Iran-contra affair has damaged the presidency so badly that Reagan could not get ratification of any comprehensive arms control deal in the Senate, all the senators agreed that although time is pressing, ratification would be possible. In their formal and informal meeting with Soviet negotiators here, they have been pressing this message on.