WASHINGTON — Although last October's summit in Reykjavik collapsed over arms control, President Reagan declared in his State of the Union message Tuesday that the issue remains near the top of the Administration's foreign policy agenda for his last two years.
"The United States has made serious, fair and far-reaching proposals to the Soviet Union," Reagan said, "and this is a moment of rare opportunity for arms reduction."
But time is running precariously short. Any accord would require that U.S. and Soviet leaders cut through the enormous differences in their negotiating stances, particularly over Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Arms negotiators who are continuing to meet in Geneva would then have to convert any such breakthrough into detailed treaty language and the treaty would have to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate.
And all that would have to happen not only before Reagan leaves office in two years but before the onset of presidential election fever in mid-1988 is likely to make action on substantive issues all but impossible.
The Administration has more reason than ever to want a broad, new strategic arms agreement that would be Reagan's peace legacy. As it now stands, Reagan's record is punctuated instead by a $1-trillion defense buildup, its abandonment of the 1979 strategic arms treaty and efforts to erode the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to facilitate work on the Strategic Defense Initiative.
A new U.S.-Soviet arms agreement also would deflect public and congressional criticism of the Administration because of the Iran- contra scandal, which otherwise can be expected to dominate Washington politics throughout this year.
Yet Reagan showed no new softening Tuesday of his position on SDI, as his "Star Wars" program of space-based defense is formally known.
'Moment of Opportunity'
"In Iceland last October," he told Congress, "we had one moment of opportunity that the Soviets dashed because they sought to cripple our Strategic Defense Initiative. . . . I wouldn't let them do it then. I won't let them do it now or in the future."
Nor has Moscow budged from its unconditional opposition to SDI, the issue over which the Reykjavik summit collapsed. It has sent new signals of willingness to deal with the Reagan Administration on arms issues, but it has offered nothing concrete and authoritative so far.
"It looks like the Soviets are gearing up for business across the board, as if they've adopted a new work ethic," a senior State Department official said last week. "We'd like to be optimistic, but so far there have been only procedural moves, not substantive changes."
--U.S. and Soviet officials met earlier this month on the proposed "risk-reduction centers" that would be set up in the two capitals. There, experts from both sides would maintain continuous contact in time of peace, with the aim of mitigating the danger that a crisis could escalate to nuclear war.
--Specialists from the two sides resumed meeting this week on nuclear weapons tests. The Soviets want to begin formal negotiations to end all such tests, while the Administration--claiming that some tests are necessary to ensure weapons reliability--favors narrower discussions aimed at improving measures to monitor the tests, and at limiting their annual number and reducing their maximum yield.
--Both nations appear willing to continue and increase their diplomatic exchanges on regional differences in such places as Afghanistan, Southern Africa, Central America and the Middle East, according to U.S. officials.
--At home, the Soviets have adopted new regulations governing emigration of some of its citizens, such as Jews seeking to be reunited with relatives in Israel. Although the new rules reduce prospects for a sustained exodus, they could produce a burst of emigration for two or three years. That might be sufficient to give the Kremlin reason to expect concessions from Washington, such as the recent decision by the Commerce Department to let the Soviets buy U.S. oil drilling equipment.
--And on the key issue of strategic arms control--the weather vane of the superpower relationship for much of the world--the Soviets have abruptly put a higher-ranking official, First Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli M. Vorontsov, in charge of their arms control negotiating team in Geneva.
This was taken as a signal of increased interest in making progress at the talks, despite the prolonged impasse resulting from Reykjavik. Vorontsov has other, continuing foreign affairs duties in Moscow that should prevent him from being a full-time negotiator in Geneva, however, and some U.S. officials suspect that the Soviets either seek only propaganda gain from his appointment or want to circumvent the Geneva talks in favor of secret, "back channel" exchanges in Washington or Moscow.