WASHINGTON — For the first time in 10 years, the Soviet Union has failed to meet its annual minimum wheat purchase requirement under the U.S.-Soviet grain pact, Agriculture Department officials said Monday.
The officials said the Soviet Union remained 1.1 million metric tons short of its commitment under the five-year accord signed in 1983 to buy and take delivery of 4 million metric tons of U.S. wheat in each year ending Sept. 30.
"This is the first time that anything this clear has happened. . . . They had a reputation as being one of our most reliable buyers," one official said in a telephone interview.
In a year of bountiful wheat harvests worldwide, the U.S. officials said Soviet officials had told them they felt under no obligation to honor the pact because U.S. wheat prices are higher than those of many other suppliers.
"The Soviets are interpreting the agreement slightly differently than we are," one Administration official said.
Western experts in the Soviet Union, saying good weather in key areas had improved the quality of Soviet crops, predicted a better grain harvest and less need for imports this year.
The experts predicted that Soviet grain import needs this year would be 37 million metric tons, down from 55 million in 1984-85.
The 1983 pact says grain will be purchased "at the market price prevailing for these products at the time of purchase."
U.S. officials say that means prevailing U.S. prices, while Soviet officials have said it means world prices.
Agriculture Department officials acknowledged that Moscow had been able to buy cheaper wheat from such suppliers as Canada, Argentina, the Common Market and Australia.
But Under Secretary of Agriculture Daniel Amstutz said he viewed the failure to buy the U.S. wheat as "a unilateral abrogation" of the agreement.
As recently as one month ago, Soviet officials assured Agriculture Secretary John R. Block in Moscow that they would buy the wheat before the marketing year expired.
A spokesman for Block said he was deeply disappointed that the deadline had arrived without any evidence of purchases.
The Soviet Union has purchased nearly four times its 4-million-metric-ton corn commitment this year. There are fewer worldwide suppliers of corn than of wheat.
The two nations have traded grain under formal agreements since 1975. Trade was interrupted in 1980, when former President Jimmy Carter embargoed U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union after Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan.
President Reagan ended the embargo on April 24, 1981.