The United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to hold a new round of high-level talks about the situation in the Middle East, the White House said yesterday.
Deputy press secretary Robert Sims said the discussions have been approved in principle by the two governments. The talks are an outgrowth of President Reagan's proposal last September for "periodic consultations at policy level about regional problems" with the Soviet Union. Reagan made the proposal in an address to the United Nations General Assembly, and the United States followed up in diplomatic discussions with the Soviets.
Despite reports to the contrary, there was only "a passing reference" to the Middle East in last week's meeting in Geneva of U.S. and Soviet delegations headed by Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, a State Department official said. Other sources said arrangements for the planned Mideast discussions have been moving in a separate channel.
Presidential national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane said in an interview on Cable News Network that renewed U.S.-Soviet discussions about the Middle East would be an "exchange of views, a talk, a conversation about how each of us views the problems of the area . . . not a matter of formal negotiation at all."
The two countries last year held an unannounced round of high-level discussions concerning the war between Iran and Iraq. These talks, at a time when military tension and the threat of escalation between the regional powers was high, involved meetings between Shultz and Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin in Washington, and Gromyko and U.S. Ambassador Arthur Hartman in Moscow.
U.S. officials later described these discussions as an exchange of information that seemed useful to both sides in a high-risk situation.
A recent American visitor to Moscow who discussed the Middle East with Soviet officials came away with the conclusion that the Soviets are "much interested" in reopening a dialogue on the Middle East. Such discussions were held frequently in the mid-1970s when the United States and the Soviet Union were cochairmen of the Geneva conference that aimed at a comprehensive Middle East solution, but they have only rarely been held in the past several years.
The Soviet Union is expected to use the reopened dialogue to push for an international conference on the Middle East, which the United States continues to reject.
Among the topics likely to figure in new talks, a State Department official said, are Arab-Israeli questions such as the situation in Lebanon and Soviet arms and political support for Syria; the Iran-Iraq war; Libya; and perhaps Afghanistan.
The most likely U.S. participant in the discussions with the Soviets about the Middle East is Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy, the State Department's senior Middle East expert.
State Department sources said no time, place or other details of the U.S.-Soviet discussions about the Middle East have yet been established.