Arms control analysts in Washington remain convinced that the United States and the Soviet Union will reach agreement on a treaty to eliminate certain kinds of nuclear weapons. And there seems to be a consensus that the emerging treaty will be ratified by the US Senate.
But there are indications that the process of negotiating and approving a treaty, not easy even under the best of circumstances, will be even more arduous and divisive than previously expected. They include the reported selection of a new head for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, disagreements between the US and the Soviets over American nuclear warheads in West Germany, and a demand by a key US senator in the arms control debate that could prolong the formal Senate approval of any treaty that might be reached in coming months.
The most immediate problem, though perhaps not the most pressing one, is the continued bickering between the Soviet and American negotiators over the elimination of all ground-launched, intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
The Soviets want the US to agree to destroy the nuclear warheads of 72 Pershing 1A missiles in West Germany. This week, the US said it will ``withdraw'' the warheads from West Germany, but reserves the right to retain them in its arsenal.
Some analysts believe that both sides will eventually find a way around the impasse, because the issue simply isn't important enough to prevent an agreement.
Nevertheless, debating the topic will prolong the negotiations.
In the meantime, conservatives are growing more skeptical about the emergent agreement by the day, arguing that it amounts to a cave-in to the Soviets by an administration too anxious to remove the tarnish of the Iran-contra affair.
The White House may be on the verge of fueling conservative opposition even more.
The Washington Times reported this week that President Reagan was planning to offer Paul Nitze, one of his senior arms control advisers, the job as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).
Mr. Nitze has become a lightning rod for conservative critics of the administration's arms control policies. ``The perception is that Nitze has been willing to make concessions,'' says James T. Hackett, an official of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here.
Nitze's appointment to ACDA, says Mr. Hackett, means that his views on arms control have prevailed in the administration over those of more conservative advisers.
Therefore, Hackett predicts that Nitze will become the ``focal point of the opposition,'' not only on the possible intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, but also on the administration's ``peripatetic arms control policies.''
James Rubin, a senior analyst with the Arms Control Association (ACA), a private organization, says that the Nitze appointment does indicate that the White House is already looking ahead to the ratification debate. Nitze has been a key adviser to Mr. Reagan, says Mr. Rubin, and naming him head of ACDA will likely increase his stature and prominence as a witness during Senate hearings on ratification.
But if that is the White House logic, a number of analysts say it places the Reagan administration squarely on the horns of a dilemma of its own making.
The administration is preparing a report on the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, in which it argues that the negotiating record of the treaty justifies a broad interpretation that would allow the US to proceed with testing of components of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a system designed to knock out Soviet missiles launched toward the US.
The Soviets have argued that testing and deployment of SDI would be a violation of the ABM treaty. Some prominent US arms control experts have agreed, including some of the men who negotiated the treaty. But the administration has argued that it is the negotiating record of the treaty, not the present-day interpretations of the treaty architects, that should be relied upon.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, head of the powerful Armed Services Committee, opposes the administration's interpretation. Now he's arguing that if the record of the negotiations, rather than the testimony of the negotiators, is definitive in the ABM debate, isn't that also true in the INF debate? Accordingly, Mr. Nunn sent a letter to Reagan this week calling on him to declassify the negotiating record of the INF treaty - a process that would take months, and lead to lengthy delays on ratification. Alternatively, Nunn suggests, the White House could reassess its arguments about reinterpreting the ABM treaty, and avoid delays on ratifying the INF agreement.
The move is ``very important,'' says Rubin, because it links the INF agreement directly to the administration's interpretation of the ABM treaty. Hackett agrees, and says the move by Nunn is one more sign of growing opposition to President Reagan's arms control policies.
``He's departing very sharply from the course we thought he was on in both elections,'' says Hackett.