WASHINGTON — The new Soviet proposal to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe was welcomed Monday by the White House, but senior U.S. officials said that about a dozen issues still separate the United States and the Soviet Union from such an agreement.
The White House called the proposal, which would limit each side to 100 of the medium-range warheads outside Europe, a "positive development" and praised the Soviets for not linking it to curbs on President Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based defense system also known as "Star Wars."
However, U.S. officials said, a number of issues remain unresolved.
The issues range from the question of how to restrict shorter-range missiles in Europe, which the United States fears could be used by the Soviets as substitutes for intermediate-range weapons, to defining Asian territory in such a way that would prevent placement of intermediate-range missiles just across the Ural Mountains in Siberia, where they still would be within range of Western Europe.
In addition, U.S. negotiators are eager to examine the details of any Soviet proposal on a given issue to ensure that it does not trap them into making concessions elsewhere. They have found, for example, that a Soviet offer concerning Alaska could have compromised U.S. interests in Europe if it had been accepted.
Still, the surprise offer by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev over the weekend appears to have the potential for a breakthrough toward agreement in the talks on intermediate-range weapons in Europe. Gorbachev overcame a major obstacle to such a pact by separating the proposal from long-range offensive missiles and the SDI program, which Reagan has adamantly declared will not become a bargaining chip.
In an acerbic letter Monday that scored the President on a number of arms control fronts, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) warned Reagan not to "sacrifice progress in arms control by focusing totally" on the "Star Wars" project.
Byrd also cautioned the President against adopting a broader interpretation of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty to allow SDI testing. Without Senate consultation, he said, such a redefinition would preempt the chamber's constitutional role in the formation of treaties.
At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Monday: "We welcome this apparent Soviet agreement to move forward on intermediate nuclear forces, for which we have been ready since the Soviets first agreed to it at the Geneva summit in November, 1986. The United States remains ready for progress in all areas at the nuclear and space arms negotiations in Geneva. We intend to table specific treaty language on INF in the near future."
Caution on Timing
However, when asked if a treaty appears likely soon, a senior Administration official who requested anonymity replied: "It takes a hell of a lot of time to negotiate a treaty. . . . There are areas of agreement. I think we're talking about fall as a minimum."
The major difference between the United States and Soviet positions on intermediate-range missiles now appears to be how to limit weapons with ranges under 1,000 miles that could hit West European targets from the Soviet Union or from Eastern Europe. The Soviets have as many as 1,100 of these weapons in place, while the United States has about 100.
The Soviets have proposed freezing these short-range systems and negotiating reductions of them later--a move that U.S. officials believe would lock the United States into an inferior position. Instead, Washington wants the short-range systems reduced to equal levels.
Another undecided issue is the Soviets' efforts since the superpower summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, last fall to insist on the geographic definition of Asia when negotiating limits on deployment of their 100 medium-range warheads.
Previously, the Soviets had agreed that, for the purposes of the agreement, "Asia" would begin at 80 degrees west longitude rather than at the Ural Mountains. Intermediate-range missiles east of the 80-degree line would be unable to reach Europe, except for one part of Norway.
Yet another issue is the Soviet attempt to prevent the United States from deploying its 100 medium-range warheads in Alaska. From that state, U.S. Pershing 2s and cruise missiles could reach important Soviet targets in the Far East.
The Soviets proposed that neither side deploy the 100 permitted weapons on sites from which they could strike the national territory of the other side. But U.S. negotiators soon found that this wording might have unfavorable consequences in Europe, where U.S. aircraft are capable of hitting Soviet territory. Therefore, U.S. officials said, agreement to such wording for Alaska might set a negative precedent.
Robert C. Toth reported from Los Angeles and Don Shannon from Washington.