WASHINGTON — President Reagan, saying that "we are going forward" with the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program, Tuesday disputed suggestions by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev that pressing ahead with development could undermine chances for agreement on reducing long-range nuclear weapons.
Reagan, who declared last Friday that the issue was "resolved" during last week's summit talks with Gorbachev, acknowledged Tuesday that the two governments remain sharply divided on the program, informally known as "Star Wars."
However, the President asserted that he and the Soviet leader have agreed to disagree on the issue and not let it be an obstacle to the strategic arms reduction talks in Geneva.
We Are Going Forward"
"It was a simple thing," the President told reporters at a "photo opportunity" with Republican congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House. In public statements at the end of the summit, he said, Gorbachev "took his position, we took ours, and it was put that way in the joint communique. We are going forward" with "Star Wars" development.
Asked if he thought "Star Wars" could get in the way of START, as the strategic arms reduction talks are often called, Reagan answered curtly: "No."
Gorbachev complained in a speech in Moscow on Monday that Administration officials were asserting that last week's talks left the United States free to develop and deploy anti-missile weapons. The Soviets have contended that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty permits only laboratory testing of such weapons. The Administration has claimed that its broad interpretation of the pact allows space tests.
Gorbachev called the new Administration assertions "dangerous tendencies" and warned that they "can undermine the nascent turn in the process of the demilitarization of international relations."
The joint communique last week said that both sides had agreed to tell their arms control negotiators in Geneva "to work out an agreement that would commit the sides to observe the ABM treaty . . . while conducting their research, development and testing as required"--and not to withdraw from the treaty "for a specified period of time."
The United States has offered not to withdraw from the ABM treaty through 1994. The Soviet Union has said that the two sides should agree to a 10-year period of non-withdrawal.
A senior Administration official insisted last Thursday that the "as required" phrase in the joint communique meant that "neither side is limited in their research, testing and development" of a missile defense system.
No Direct Tie-in
Reiterating the point Tuesday, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "There is nothing in that communique that restricts SDI testing or directly ties the two (SDI and the arms talks) together."
He added: "The 'as required' language . . . clearly is a signal from both sides that they're hopeful that we can get a START treaty signed without the two interfering with each other." The joint communique "was designed not to raise obstacles at this point and not to try to impose restrictions that would stall the talks."
Fitzwater said that Reagan has maintained "quite publicly" that "we intend to test, research, develop and deploy SDI." At the same time, he said, "it is equally clear that the Soviet Union does not believe SDI should be developed and deployed. . . . We have often said that we agreed to disagree. . . . But at the same time, we will proceed with START negotiations."
As a practical matter, the Administration will not be able to conduct "Star Wars" tests in space until at least the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The Administration agreed to a testing restriction in the defense authorization bill recently approved by Congress.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz disclosed last weekend that the Administration would seek congressional permission for expanded testing of "Star Wars" components on a case-by-case basis, rather than attempting to convince Congress that all testing is permitted under a broad interpretation of the ABM treaty.