WASHINGTON — President Reagan said Thursday that he expects his meeting next week with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to be followed by another summit in Moscow that likely will "make another gigantic step" toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
He also said that conservative opposition to the medium-range nuclear weapons treaty that he and Gorbachev expect to sign at the White House is based on a lack of knowledge about the treaty and that some opponents, "down in their deepest thoughts," believe that war between the superpowers is inevitable.
In a White House interview conducted by four network television anchormen, Reagan said that he has not retreated from his view that the Soviet Union is "an evil empire"--a view he expressed in a speech in 1983. Thus, he said, the treaty "is hinged on arriving at solid verification measures" to ensure that neither side cheats on the arms reductions they agree to make.
The 30-minute interview with ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, broadcast Thursday night, represented a central element in the White House campaign to focus public attention on the summit and to dispel concerns that the arms agreement will make the United States and its Western allies more vulnerable to attack.
With the summit only days away, Reagan and his aides are keenly sensitive to suggestions by conservatives at the bedrock of his political support that he is giving up too much simply to get an arms pact with the Soviet Union before leaving office.
The treaty that he and Gorbachev are scheduled to sign in the White House East Room on Tuesday would eliminate over a three-year period all of the U.S. and Soviet ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,000 miles.
The President's remarks about the prospects for another treaty limiting the superpowers' long-range weapons--those capable of striking targets more than 3,000 miles away--were his most optimistic to date and abandoned some of the cautious language that his advisers have used.
They reflected growing confidence within the Administration that the United States and the Soviet Union will be able to build on Tuesday's pact and later agree to slash their long-range arsenals by half.
'Another Gigantic Step'
The President, who said he would be "very disappointed" if such a treaty does not follow from U.S.-Soviet negotiations, told his interviewers: "I think that we're going to have a meeting in Moscow, and I think there is a reasonably good chance that we will make another gigantic step forward in the elimination of nuclear weapons."
Gorbachev, in an interview broadcast Monday by NBC, offered a similarly upbeat assessment, saying, "We believe that it is possible to do a lot of work with this present Administration."
Addressing another issue that is likely to be featured prominently in summit discussions--the deployment of 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan--Reagan appeared to be trying to give the Soviet leader a measure of distance from the military occupation that aggravated anti-Soviet sentiment in the United States when it began in 1979.
Referring to the fact that Gorbachev took office less than three years ago, he said: "You must remember that there were other leaders under which this happened. He inherited that. And those leaders are the ones who had created the puppet government. Now whether he knows to what extent they did that or not, I don't know," Reagan said.
Favorable View of Gorbachev
Indeed, the President offered a generally favorable portrait of the Soviet leader, saying that Gorbachev's predecessors had endorsed a view that "the future lay in a one-world Communist state" but that Gorbachev "has never made that claim but is willing to say he is prepared to live with other philosophies and other countries."
In remarks on other topics in the interview, Reagan:
-- Misstated Administration policy on the value of the dollar. He blamed a "a sudden surge" of cuts in interest rates by seven European central banks for "again making the dollar fall," and he added: "That was their doing, not ours." Only hours before, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III had praised the banks' action, which the United States had long sought and which had the effect of propping up the dollar. "It should be (dollar) 'rise,' " White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in a clarification issued after the interview. "He meant to say 'rise.' "
-- Said the Administration's secret sale of weapons to Iran, which included the diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan rebels, was not "a scandal" and that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is "as big a Satan as he thinks I am." He said "everybody has . . . misconstrued it as that we were trading, as a ransom, hostages for arms."
-- Refused to budge from his professed neutrality in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, but he described Vice President George Bush as "the finest vice president, in my memory, in this country . . . he's an executive vice president. He's a major part."
Reagan's interview came as part of a series of pre-summit programs and briefings orchestrated by the White House and Soviet officials in the last week, with more planned over the weekend.