President Reagan has decided to respond positively to the recent arms control proposals of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with particular emphasis on three aspects of Gorbachev's offer, administration officials said yesterday.
Reagan's general approach to the arms offer, which was discussed in detail at a National Security Council meeting Monday, reportedly was incorporated in the instructions of two senior U.S. arms advisers who left yesterday to consult key U.S. allies in Western Europe and Asia and, for the first time in such a coordinating role, the People's Republic of China.
Final decisions will not be made until reports have been received next week from the two emissaries -- Ambassadors Paul H. Nitze, who is headed to Britain, France, West Germany and other NATO countries; and Edward L. Rowny, who is going to Japan, South Korea, Australia and China, according to the sources.
Testimony yesterday by Secretary of State George P. Shultz that the arms negotiations "may be at a rare moment of opportunity" was said to reflect Reagan's views.
In response to questioning by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), Shultz made three points, which officials said are likely to be incorporated into Reagan's answers to Gorbachev's offer.
*It was "an advance" in the negotiations, Shultz said, for the Soviet leader to have proposed the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons and to have done so in "somewhat more operational form" involving schedules for radical cutbacks.
Shultz added that "we have to look very carefully at what the conditions would have to be that would make a non-nuclear world a safe and stable world." This was reported to reflect a consensus in the administration that certain conditions should be placed on proposals for elimination of nuclear weapons -- including controls on conventional forces and weapons, regional stability and compliance with earlier arms treaties -- in order that the West not be placed at a disadvantage in relationship to Moscow.
*Gorbachev's proposals on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) were "interesting" but his proposals regarding strategic arms and weapons in space provided nothing new, Shultz said.
The Reagan approach, therefore, is to concentrate on the INF part of the three-part nuclear and space negotiations under way in Geneva, possibly including new U.S. counterproposals in the INF field. Among the ideas under discussion is a suggestion of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency that the United States seek a 50 percent cut in Soviet SS20 missiles in Asia. Gorbachev proposed elimination of all medium-range weapons in "the European zones" but did not mention limits in Asia.
U.S. negotiators in Geneva have been unable to obtain any detail of Gorbachev's proposals not included in his Jan. 15 letter to Reagan and public announcement, administration officials said. One of the questions under intense but inconclusive discussion is whether -- or to what extent -- Gorbachev's offers on INF are independent of progress in the parallel strategic arms and space negotiations.
*A "good sign," according to Shultz, was "a recognition in words of the importance of verification," including on-site inspection and what Shultz called "intrusive verification."
The United States will be exploring "what concretely lies behind these words, which are good-sounding words," he said.
An idea being discussed in the administration is to make specific U.S. proposals for minimum verification requirements of various arms control plans under negotiation. This would provide the basis for more detailed and serious dialogue on verification issues with the Soviets, but also could generate major disagreements with them and, potentially, within the U.S. government and the western alliance.