Several European nations will propose this week that the United States adopt a "zero-level option" as its official opening bargaining position in the theater nuclear forces (TNF) negotiations with the Soviet Union scheduled to begin in Geneva Nov. 30, allied defense and diplomatic officials have disclosed.
The decision by West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands to press the United States to offer the controversial proposal at Geneva represents a move by them to defuse the mass protests rolling across Europe against the scheduled deployment in their countries of a new generation of U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles, these officials acknowledged.
European pressures resulted in NATO's defense ministers last week endorsing the zero option as a possible negotiating proposal at a meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, despite U.S. opposition.
Bonn, Rome and The Hague now want to push for a stronger U.S. commitment to this option. U.S. officials have been moderating their position on the plan but still are doubtful whether they will accept it.
Under the "zero-level" approach, the NATO allies would agree not to deploy any of the now-planned 108 Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe if the Soviets reduce to zero their 250 or so new SS20 intermediate-range missiles, each with three warheads, and about 300 remaining, older SS4 and SS5 medium-range missiles.
Until now, the official position of NATO has been that the TNF talks should result in an equal balance of theater-range missiles on both sides, with no numbers mentioned.
When this zero option approach was raised privately by the West Germans during the Carter administration, Washington officials rejected it, arguing that thereafter the Soviets would not consider the allies serious in wanting some arms limitations.
Reagan officials have criticized the zero option idea, saying publicly that it raises false hopes about what can be achieved through negotiation and adding privately that should the Soviets accept the idea, it would leave them with an advantage in the nuclear forces that remained.
The allies, however, do not expect the Soviets to accept the zero option approach, it was learned during interviews in the past weeks with officials in London, The Hague, Bonn and Rome.
Many Western European officials say privately they would be disappointed if the Soviets did. They see in NATO-based Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles, real deterrents to the Soviets, weapons that Moscow would fear more than the land-based NATO missiles now in Europe because they could hit the Soviet homeland.
Rather, U.S. adoption of the zero option at the beginning of the coming talks, these European officials contend, is a necessary public relations move. They hope it would link, in the minds of their uneasy constituents, the new long-range U.S. nuclear-tipped missiles to the SS20s and thus counter the massive Soviet propaganda aimed at blocking any NATO deployments, while Moscow keeps the missiles it already has deployed.
The Soviets have argued, with some success among Europeans, that they are only modernizing their older missiles while the United States is planning to bring in a whole new type, thus increasing the nuclear threat in Europe.
The United States and its NATO allies are still working out the final details of mutually accepted positions for the U.S. negotiators to take at the Geneva talks.
The coming round of talks with the Soviets will aim at trying to work out arrangements on two key procedural issues, according to officials.
"We have to decide on what we want to limit," one NATO official involved in the process said last week, "and how we want to limit."
The United States, in preparing its approach, has sounded out the allies on the idea of expanding the types of Soviet missiles that would be included in the initial round of negotiations to include the SS22, a new, solid-fueled, mobile missile that U.S. intelligence says can travel 620 miles and thus would be able to hit West Germany from the western Soviet Union.
The Europeans' zero-level proposal and the U.S. plan to include the SS22 will be put forward, according to NATO sources, at an Oct. 26 meeting in Brussels of the Special Consultative Group, the committee charged with working out NATO's negotiating position.
New concern about the SS22 was a major finding of the recent six-month review of the Soviet threat undertaken by another NATO committee, the High Level Group, at the suggestion of the Reagan administration.
U.S. analysts were said to have suggested that if through the Geneva talks equal limits were placed on the NATO-based U.S. Pershing and cruise and Soviet SS20 missiles, the Soviets could simply build more SS22s and thus retain the numerical advantage in warheads aimed at Western Europe.
Adding the SS22 has already been discussed by the NATO groups for inclusion in the negotiating package, but several of the European nations saw it as creating problems at this early stage of talks.
When NATO adopted its 1979 decision to deploy the Pershings and cruise missiles, the alliance agreed to the so-called "double track" approach: that the weapons would begin to be introduced on West European soil in December 1983, but before then the allies would attempt to limit their number through arms control talks with the Soviets.
NATO also agreed to a slow, five-year deployment schedule, based on the idea that even after deployment started, it could be halted before all 572 missiles were in place.
Last week, the zero option idea was included over objections of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger as a "possible" approach in negotiations with the Soviets in the NATO defense ministers' communique at the end of their meeting in Scotland.
The Netherlands and West Germany led the move to insert the zero option and are expected to push the proposal in Brussels.