Two major issues are dominating the political talks at the Venice summit: President Reagan is seeking support for United States policy in the Persian Gulf. Above all, White House officials say, he wants broad diplomatic backing for a United Nations effort to end the Iran-Iraq war.
The President also seeks support for the US negotiating position in the Geneva arms talks. This includes not only the proposal for elimination of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe but, looking beyond, also for the US proposal for reductions in strategic nuclear arms. [US eases trade sanctions against Japan, Page 2.]
With respect to the Gulf, attention has focused primarily on the US efforts to protect shipping in the area and the increased role that Britain and other allies might also play. But US officials appear to have lowered their expectations for more military help, stressing that Britain and France are already providing naval protection for their vessels in the Gulf and that Japan and West Germany have constitutional restrictions on such a role.
Meanwhile, escalation of talk about a possible US preemptive strike against Iran's Silkworm antiship missiles has made many Europeans uneasy. There is concern, expected to be aired here in Venice, that a US war of nerves with Iran could create more tension in the Gulf and lead to more terrorist activity.
In warning the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini not to deploy the Chinese-made Silkworm missiles, the Reagan administration clearly wants to keep Iran guessing about American intentions. The US is prepared to defend its ships, White House officials say, and it would not ``bode well'' if the Iranians interfered.
``No one has said that we would take them out,'' White House chief of staff Howard Baker Jr. said yesterday. But, he added, he did not think the Iranians ought to know what the US decision might be if they deployed the missiles. ``I hope they don't deploy that missile,'' he said.
According to US national-security adviser Frank Carlucci, the Iranians now have more than 20 of the antiship missiles supplied by China, and the total Silkworm package will be double that number. Once deployed, these missiles, which have a range of about 50 miles, could threaten ships moving through the Strait of Hormuz. These would include the 11 Kuwaiti tankers that are being put under the US flag.
What Washington hopes to obtain here in Venice, US officials say, is backing for a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war, withdrawal of the belligerents to their borders, and negotiations for a comprehensive settlement. The resolution might also call for an arms embargo or other sanctions if either warring party did not accept the UN initiative and economic sanctions against countries that violated the embargo.
``The major contribution all these countries can make is to help us, working in the UN Security Council, to bring about a resolution with teeth in it ... and put an end to the fighting,'' said Mr. Carlucci.
The US has been negotiating for months with the other permanent members of the Security Council - the Soviet Union, China, France, and Britain - on a draft resolution, but there is no indication yet of agreement. White House officials say the negotiations are now in a delicate stage and the US does not want to upset the applecart in Venice.
But, the officials add, the President hopes to persuade his summit partners to support a diplomatic push to end the war. It is not denied, however, that the whole Iran-contra misadventure has eroded US credibility, making it more difficult to press for concerted action.
The biggest problem for US diplomacy is China, which denies that it is selling arms to Iran, including the Silkworm missiles. Washington has protested the arms shipments but, according to American officials, has not received a satisfactory response. Peking denies making the sales.
The Chinese might be dragged into supporting a UN resolution, US officials say, if they are seen to be the only holdout. But it is not clear how supportive of a UN initiative the Soviets are at this point. Moscow's allies supply arms to Iran. ``We'd like the Soviets to do their own Operation Staunch,'' says a White House official, referring to the US program to stem the flow of arms to Iran.
As the economic summit got under way here, American officials were taking note of certain positive developments in Soviet policy in the Gulf. But Mr. Baker, correcting any impression that the Soviet Union and the US are co-guarantors of peace in the Gulf, said yesterday: ``We still do not want the Soviets to increase their presence in the Gulf.''
On the key subject of arms control, which was expected to be high on Monday's agenda of noneconomic issues, President Reagan has lost no occasion over the past week to convey his hopes for a US-Soviet agreement on intermediate-range forces (INF) in Europe. He did so before his departure from Washington, in a statement issued the day after his arrival in Venice, in a broadcast to Europeans, and in his meeting with the Pope.
Senior White House officials say that the prospects for an agreement - and for a US-Soviet summit meeting this year - are good. But an INF accord, while a good beginning, would be a relatively minor agreement. The President is looking for support from his fellow economic summiteers for an accord on strategic nuclear weapons, which requires pressing the Soviet Union to separate the issue of Mr. Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative from the strategic arms negotiations - a link still demanded by Moscow. ``I don't think it will be difficult to get allied support for that,'' Carlucci has said.
In their discussions on East-West relations, the leaders of the seven major industrial democracies will also assess Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his bold policies at home and abroad. In recent pronouncements Reagan has sounded a tough tone with respect to the new Kremlin leadership, as if seeking to persuade the summit leaders not to be snowed or swayed by Mr. Gorbachev's charm and assertiveness.