WASHINGTON — President Reagan has decided on his "basic approach" in responding to the latest Soviet arms proposals, the White House confirmed Monday, adding that a formal letter to Moscow will detail Reagan's reply after U.S. emissaries consult with friends and allies abroad.
"The letter will be sent (to Moscow) before the end of the month," White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian said, and will be a "comprehensive response" to an earlier letter from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, which covered issues to be discussed at their next summit meeting.
Djerejian refused to comment on the substance of Reagan's position and said that no "specific draft" of a letter to Gorbachev has been accepted by the President. However, special envoys Paul H. Nitze, Edward L. Rowny and Alan Holmes have been dispatched for consultations in Europe and Asia with an interim or tentative draft of the letter, officials said.
"We really want to get this to the Soviets without the details leaking out," a senior Administration official said in justifying the secrecy surrounding the Reagan decision. "And really," he added, "anyone who thinks they know what will be in the final letter is irresponsible, even if they know where he (Reagan) is now."
Reagan has changed positions significantly at least once before--on abandoning the 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty--after such consultations with allies.
In his letter, Gorbachev last month emphasized his desire for an interim agreement on intermediate-range missiles and limits on nuclear testing, as well as for some U.S. concession on Soviet concerns about the Administration's anti-missile program, several U.S officials said.
The U.S. anti-missile program is part of negotiations, now recessed, in Geneva on offensive and defensive strategic weapons. It is formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative and popularly known as the "Star Wars" program, but Gorbachev did not mention it specifically by name.
Soviet officials have suggested that, unless Reagan's response is positive, Gorbachev may renege on his promise of last November to hold a summit meeting with the President here this year. But, beyond the summit, Reagan's reply is expected to determine whether there is any prospect for improved U.S.-Soviet relations and new arms control agreements during the rest of his Administration.
While what the letter finally will say is not yet known, another senior official has speculated that, in broad terms, Reagan is inclined to:
--Reject the Soviet call to prohibit development, testing and deployment of an anti-missile defense for 15 to 20 years and also to reject Soviet attempts to restrain the program indirectly by writing more restrictive definitions of research into the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
--Accept, at least in vague terms, that the Soviets have valid reasons for linking offensive and defensive systems. Moscow offered a 33% cut in long-range missiles and bombers and a 20% cut in nuclear warheads and bombs, in exchange for prohibiting the Strategic Defense Initiative for the 15- to 20-year period.
"He will not trade the pace of SDI for offensive cuts," this official said flatly.
On the other hand, the President might accept a State Department proposal that he commit the United States to research only for another six years under the ABM treaty, which restricts development and deployment of anti-missile systems. The SDI research phase is expected to last another five or six years and, in 1992, the ABM treaty is again up for review.
Similarly, this official said, it is likely that Reagan will continue to call for a 50% cut in nuclear warheads on each side but will signal an interest in serious bargaining toward a compromise figure by showing flexibility on other aspects of offensive weapons negotiations.
The current U.S. proposal for a ban on mobile missiles could be dropped, for example, and new limits on how many weapons are permitted in various categories--on land-based missiles, sea-based missiles and bombers--could be offered.
Negotiations on nuclear test limits, meanwhile, begin in Geneva this week between U.S. and Soviet experts amid some optimism here that progress is likely.
Each side claims that it will discuss its issue--the Soviet desire for a total test ban and the U.S. demand for improved verification procedures before ratifying two 10-year-old treaties that put limits on testing.