The White House and the Kremlin appear close to shaking hands on a treaty banning medium-range nuclear missiles. But before such a treaty takes effect, it must be ratified by the Senate - a process that could turn into an unexpectedly tough fight for the Reagan administration. Conservatives, angered by what they perceive as a sellout by their longtime leader, may well wage guerrilla war over the issue of treaty verification, many Washington analysts say .
``There are lots of interesting hurdles still to go,'' says Michael Krepon, an arms control specialist at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This does not mean a treaty on intermediate nuclear forces (INF) will become President Reagan's SALT II Treaty, and fail to win the two-thirds Senate vote necessary for ratification. Almost all Democrats will favor it. Moderate Republicans who may feel queasy about the pact will be ``locked in'' by the fact that it is the work of a GOP President, predicts John Isaacs, a congressional vote analyst at the Council for a Livable World.
But the way in which the endgame of the INF negotiations has been played, Mr. Isaacs says, has given those who are set against it a powerful chess piece to use in opposition: verification.
Conservatives, led by their champion Ronald Reagan, have long complained about alleged Soviet treaty violations and said that any new arms pact must contain strict verification provisions. Thus, when the Reagan administration this week rolled back its verification demands, an INF treaty became more likely - but some conservatives felt betrayed.
``It's ridiculous to contemplate a new arms agreement with the Soviets when they are still violating the old ones,'' says James Hackett, an arms control specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Hackett says he believes verification of Soviet compliance with any INF treaty may well be impossible, as the weapons involved are small and mobile. He says the United States should stop talking about an INF pact and instead deploy a defensive shield against tactical ballistic missiles in Europe.
Conservative senators who agree with Hackett are likely to propose numerous treaty changes revolving around verification or past cheating charges. An administration official says he expects Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina to propose that ratification of INF be tied to destruction of the Soviet Krasnoyarsk radar, which is widely considered to be in a violation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Senator Helms was traveling in Africa and unavailable for comment.
Since the Reagan administration itself has made much of the violations issue over the years, it faces the prospect of being confronted with its own past rhetoric when it presents an INF treaty to the Senate for ratification.
``The administration is going to have to eat a lot of crow,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.
Analysts say the position taken by Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas could well determine how embarrassing this fight becomes for the White House. Senator Dole was on the campaign trail and unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman. Reuters quoted Mr. Dole as saying that ``any new agreement will be a worthless piece of paper unless we can guarantee they won't be able to cheat.''
At a breakfast with reporters, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, security adviser to President Ford, said that in fact Reagan's progress toward an INF treaty has ``taken the steam'' out of the longtime conservative antipathy to arms pacts. General Scowcroft, who is opposed to the treaty, played down the seriousness of any ratification revolt, and said that a Reagan arms pact could have a long-term effect on US political attitudes.
``This legitimates arms control for the whole US political spectrum,'' he said.
Though conservatives are angry, the prospect of an INF pact has elated many arms control advocates here. They say that by asking for simpler verification the administration has not caved in, but has recognized reality. ``The administration has just walked away from some of its more outrageous initial demands,'' says Mr. Mendelsohn of the Arms Control Association, who adds that he feels an INF pact is adequately verifiable under the White House proposals.