Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko plan to meet in Geneva next week in an attempt to complete basic agreement on a new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) and pave the way for a U.S.-Soviet summit meeting to sign the document, official sources said yesterday.
If the Geneva meeting is successful, Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev may fly to Washington as early as January for the ceremonial signing and substantive meetings with President Carter, the sources said.
The diplomatic movement toward a new Vance-Gromyko meeting and compromise agreement on outstanding issues resulted from a recent round of White House policymaking and three meetings on three straight days late last week between Vance and Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin.
Dobrynin's sessions with Vance at the State Department on Wednesday and Thursday were publicly announced, though no details were given. The decision to move ahead to a new session with Gromyko apparently was nailed down at the third, and unannounced, session. The halfhour conference at the State Department late Friday morning, just a few hours before Vance departed for the Middle East, took place at Dobrynin's request, according to officials.
Mindful of the up-again, down-again history of the long-running strategic arms negotiations, officials cautioned that scheduling of a new Geneva meeting does not mean that outstanding issues have all been settled. The officials specifically would not confirm an account by Time magazine, which broke the story of the forthcoming Geneva session, that a "tentative SALT pact" has already been reached in the Vance-Dobrynin talks.
Following the disappointing results of Vance's talks with Gromyko and Brezhnev in late October, the U.S. side made it known that another foreign ministers' meeting on SALT would not be held until major progress was in view. There were also suggestions, buttressed by a remark of Carter's at a meeting with reporters last Thursday, that the next Vance-Gromyko meeting would be to set up the summit meeting for signing of the agreement.
Carter may shed new light on the status of the negotiations, and possibly announce the forthcoming Vance-Gromyko talks, at a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. today.
The most Likely time for the next meeting of the U.S. and Soviet foreign ministers is Dec. 21-22, but this depends to some degree on the progress of Vance's current negotiations with Egyptian and Israeli leaders in the Middle East. Vance is seeking to achieve a breakthrough toward the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty by this Sunday, Dec. 17, the target date for the treaty which was agreed upon during the Camp David negotiations three months ago.
In broad outline, a SALT II agreement has been close to completion since late in 1975, and it is generally believed that then-President Ford could have obtained a pact had he been willing to push ahead in the 1976 election year.
The negotiations were set back for a time early in the Carter administration as a result of the new president's proposals to make "deep cuts" in the strategic arsenals of the superpowers. The Soviets interpreted this much-heralded plan of March 1977 as a repudiation of their tentative agreements with the United States under the Ford administration.
Negotiations in the summer and fall of 1977 resurrected the chances for agreement. Tightened restrictions on future development of strategic weap-onry, beyond the curbs envisoned by the Ford administration, have been agreed upon during the past year.
Saying that "the remaining differences are minor, compared to what they were a year ago," Carter said last Thursday that in his own mind "I can see a way" to resolve them. "If the Soviets are adequately forthcoming, I would guess that any further delay would be minimal," he said.
A Carter-Brezhnev summit in the second half of January would produce the ceremonial signing at a time when Congress has returned to Washington, and could participate in the formalities and the Brezhnev visit.
White House officials acknowledge they will have a major fight on their hands to obtain ratification by the necessary two-thirds of the Senate if SALT is submitted as a treaty. Carter still has not closed the door to submitting all or part of the SALT deal as an executive agreement which requires majority vote approval, despite strong objections to such a parliamentary device lodged by Senate leaders of both parties.