Defense ministers from 13 NATO countries were told here today that recommendations for possible strategic arms talks with Moscow and the U.S. negotiating position would be sent to the National Security Council and President Reagan for decision within several weeks.
However, the NATO ministers meeting here were not given any date for when those talks would begin, and, according to a senior U.S. defense official, they did not press for such a date.
The official acknowledged that the West European allies would like to see the talks begin, as a potential way to ease tensions in Europe between the two superpowers. But, in a briefing for reporters, he said there was general recognition within the alliance that those talks can succeed only if they begin "under auspicious circumstances," meaning an improved international climate.
The U.S. assessment, which was supported later by a British official who talked with reporters, is that it would be best to avoid a situation in which talks got off on the wrong footing because of continued high tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger suggested that the arms talks could begin this summer. State Department officials later said that beginning the talks depended on international circumstances and suggested that, for example, improvements in the Polish situation were necessary.
According to U.S. and other allied officials, there was no pressure exerted here on Weinberger by the allies to push ahead faster or ease the conditions that would allow talks to begin, although some countries are known to want the talks to begin regardless of international conditions.
Today's meeting here was the first of a two-day, closed-door session of NATO's nuclear planning group. Generally, it is the NATO foreign ministers that are likely to bring more pressure on Washington with respect to political questions rather than purely military issues.
The defense ministers reportedly spent much of the first day discussing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's proposal to refrain from further deployments of SS20 intermediate-range missiles west of the Ural mountains unless the United States goes ahead with its deployment of 572 new missiles in Western Europe.
This was the first NATO meeting since Brezhnev unveiled his latest proposals. The U.S. defense official said there was a general feeling at today's session that Brezhnev's proposal "is not the solution that the alliance is looking for."
The ministers, he said, continue to show a high degree of support for sticking with the plan advanced by Reagan last November under which the Soviets would have to dismantle all of their intermediate-range missiles in order for the United States to forego deployment of new weapons meant to balance Soviet arms already deployed.
Weinberger told the ministers today that the two U.S. missiles--the Pershing II and the cruise missile--remain on the schedule. Their deployment is scheduled to begin late next year.