The United States told its West European allies today that it is prepared to resume negotiations with the Soviet Union on limiting nuclear weapons in Europe, but NATO officials made it clear that such talks are probably months away.
The Reagan administration is under steady pressure to resume talks with the Soviets from uneasy European allies who face growing domestic opposition to the alliance's plans to modernize theater nuclear weapons, often referred to as TNF.
No date for the talks to resume was offered by Lawrence S. Eagleburger, assistant secretary of state-designate for European affairs, who met with European disarmament experts here today in the first of a series of politically important consultations between the United States and its West European allies in the coming months.
According to an official who briefed reporters afterward, the allies did not press for a date. The West Europeans seemed aware that Washington is unwilling to provide a specific schedule for talks at this time and appeared satisfied for the moment to have this early alliance consultative session with pursuing talks.
It is widely believed, however, that if the United States does not signal by the summer a firm timetable to return to the negotiating table, the Europeans will press for a definite date.
While European officials were said to have stressed their interest in seeing the negotiations proceed as quickly as possible, they reportedly voiced understanding for the time that is being taken by the Reagan administration to formulate a new East-West policy, specifically a new position on SALT II -- the sidetracked strategic arms limitation agreement initialed by former president Jimmy Carter and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in 1979. Carter shelved the agreement after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, when it became clear that the Senate would not ratify it, and President Reagan has refused to resubmit it.
Although the arms talks -- which began in Geneva last summer and were suspended after the U.S. elections -- are linked to the entire SALT process, the Reagan administration appears to have accepted the European argument that negotiations about U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe can and should proceed independently of the timing for new talks on the SALT agreement, which covers intercontinental weapons.
Washington initially agreed to negotiate with Moscow about limiting nuclear weapons in Europe in order to win West European support for the December 1979 NATO decision to station new medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
This crucial alliance decision was intended to strengthen the West's position in East-West arms talks by offsetting a buildup of similar nuclear weapons by the Soviets.
Before the Geneva talks resume, however, alliance officials made clear today that a round of Western consultations would take place during the next few months. Today's meeting of the so-called Special Consulative Group -- a committee of disarmament experts from NATO member countries charged specifically with monitoring the Geneva negotiations -- marked the first formal alliance review of the talks since the Reagan administration took office.
"This meeting represents an important step in continuing implementation of the arms-control approach," the briefing official said. The process is expected to continue with a meeting next week of the nuclear planning group in Bonn, followed by a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Rome in May.
"The United States and its allies place great importance on alliance consulations as a step toward resumption of U.S.-Soviet exchanges on theater nuclear forces within the SALT framework," the official said. "Of course, the nature of the TNF-SALT relationship will have to await the outcome of our ongoing review of arms control. However, this is not a question that need delay implementation of our TNF arms control approach."
At the same time, the official said preparations for eventual deployment of 572 U.S.-made cruise and Pershing II missiles "are moving forward on schedule." The first missiles will be moved to Europe in 1983.