The Carter administration will resume routine negotiations with the Soviet Union on limiting conventional arms transfers to other countries despite Soviet treatment of dissidents, the State Department announced yesterday.
The effect of the decision was to exempt the conventional arms transfer talks from a general review of American-Soviet cooperation that administration officials announced last week during a storm of protest over the trials and sentencings of dissidents Anatoly Scharansky and Alexander Gizburg.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance said then that the strategic arms limitation talks - generally knows as SALT - were too important to world peace and American national security to be linked to the continuing dispute over human rights and detente.
Gingerly broadening this rationale to encompass the talks on cutting global arms sales as well, State Department deputy spokesman Thomas Reston said the meeting would be held in Helsinki today as scheduled "because, as with other arms control negotiations, it is in the interest of our national security to do so."
Reston said he did not know if congressional leaders had been consulted on the decision. But the prepared statement he read in response to a question contained a defense of the administration's determination to continue both criticizing and trying to negotiate with the Russians.
"The president and the secretary of state have consistently expressed our deep concern with the violation of fundamental human rights by the Soviet Union," he said. "At the same time it is imperative that we seek to reduce the risks of war in an increasingly dangerous world through the pursuit of sound and verifiable arms control."
The trial and sentencing of Scharansky, a Jewish dissident involved in monitoring Soviet compliance with the Helsinki accords of 1975, provoked calls from the some members of Congress for retaliation by the United States. Specific steps suggested were the suspension of the stalled SALT negotiations and the cancellation of sales of a large American computer and oil-drilling equipment to the Soveit Union.
Reston said he did not know if a decision has been reached on the computer sale. He also said he had not been told if there had been a specific high-level review of today's Helsinki meeting, which will be attended by Leslie H. Gelb, director of the State Department's political-military affairs office.
The deputy spokesman turned away questions on whether the arms transfer meeting represented a return to "business as usual" between Moscow and Washington, saying that he could not characterize Soviet-American relations at the moment.
Other administration officials spoke hopefully of the resuming of the arms transfer meeting as one of several small signs that tension is easing slightly in the wake of last week's acrimonous exchanges. A July 15 report in Pravda, the Soviet communist party newspaper, portrayed Vance's meeting with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Geneva as having been businesslike and insulated from the domestic American concern about the dissident trials.
The Carter administration has had only mixed results with its high-priority campaign pledge to reduce the U.S. role as the world's No. 1 arms supplier. Reston said no formal agreement was expected with the Soviets at the Helsinki meeting, the third such parley since December, but that the State Department hoped for "substantial progress" on finding a joint approach to cutting back arms shipments abroad.
The administration's review of cooperation with Moscow was also discussed at a press conference yesterday by Transportation Secretary Brock Adams, who said he might cancel a trip to Moscow scheduled for September. He is due to sign a two-year renewal of a research cooperation agreement with the Soviet ministry of transportation, but Adams said the renewal was now being held in abeyance."
On another point, Reston declined to discuss American information on reports that China has expressed willingness to begin talks with the government of Taiwan over the island's future. The reports, which originated with a visiting congressional delegation, are being studied seriously by the administration, other officials said privately.
The State Department briefing also produced a denial from Reston that the administration is "siding with" African guerrillas fighting against a multiracial transition government in Rhodesia. He said the American objective was to get both sides to abandon their separate and conflicting attempts "to dominate the transition period" and to agree "on a transition process" that will lead to fair elections.