President Reagan rejected Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's latest call for a nuclear testing moratorium today and called on Gorbachev to respond to U.S. proposals to improve verification of nuclear tests.
Reagan also rejected Gorbachev's proposal for a summit meeting in Europe on the nuclear testing issue, because a superpower meeting should "deal with the entire range" of U.S.-Soviet relations.
The president's response, in a statement issued here by deputy press secretary Peter H. Roussel, pointed out that Gorbachev had accepted an invitation to meet in the United States this year but the Soviets have not responded to U.S. proposals concerning a date.
Gorbachev announced in Moscow today that he was giving the United States a last chance to join the unilateral testing moratorium he imposed seven months ago. His initiative was dismissed as a "propaganda ploy" by a U.S. official here. Previously, U.S. officials have said Gorbachev imposed the test ban because the Soviets had finished testing for last year. Reagan has insisted on the need for continued testing, and another U.S. explosion is scheduled soon.
In the statement, issued while Reagan vacationed at his ranch near here, Roussel reiterated the U.S. position that a nuclear testing moratorium "is not in the security interests of the U.S., our friends and allies."
"The United States has learned through experience that moratoria cannot be counted on to lead to the enhanced security desired," he said. "While the total elimination of nuclear weapons remains an ultimate goal, nuclear weapons remain needed to deter aggression and secure the peace.
"As long as this is the case, a moderate level of nuclear testing is needed to ensure the continued reliability, safety and effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent," he said.
Administration officials here and in Washington suggested that Gorbachev's televised address was an effort to put the best face on a failed initiative. The officials also said Gorbachev appeared to be under pressure from his own military to resume nuclear testing.
The White House responded late today by calling on Gorbachev to respond to Reagan's March 14 invitation to send a Soviet team to witness a nuclear test in mid-April and examine a new verification system known as Corrtex.
Roussel said the United States has "repeatedly made it clear" that the "practical step now needed in the area of nuclear testing" is to improve verification, particularly for the unratified Peaceful Nuclear Explosions and Threshold test ban treaties.
The Soviets had criticized Reagan's verification proposal. Roussel reiterated that if the Soviets reached agreement with the United States on improving verification using the new technology, Reagan "is prepared" to "move forward toward ratification of these two treaties."
"This proposal is still valid and we expect the Soviet Union to respond to it seriously -- as we have responded to all Soviet proposals," Roussel said.
Roussel said Reagan feels that a summit should cover many issues. "Nuclear testing is one of them," he said, "but only one, and it is an issue which is directly related to the others such as the need -- which we see as the highest priority -- to reduce the levels of existing nuclear arms and to establish effective verification procedures.
"If the Soviet Union desires to make serious progress on the question of nuclear testing limitation, it should accept the president's longstanding proposal that we have our experts meet, and should respond positively to the president's most recent offer," Roussel said.
One government expert on Soviet affairs said the Gorbachev statement "appeared to be setting the stage for their own resumption of testing" and that the Soviet military was uneasy with the test moratorium and grew more so as U.S. tests continued over the past eight months. By appearing to give the United States one last chance, the Soviet leader wanted to direct to Reagan "the maximum blame" for having failed to participate in the moratorium, he said. In that sense, he added, Gorbachev's proposing a last-minute meeting with Reagan was "a clever device with pizazz" to end a failed initiative.
The administration has continued to test while also parrying Gorbachev's statements on the Soviet moratorium with U.S. proposals to improve verification.
A test set for the weekend of March 15 was postponed so Reagan could propose that Soviet scientists monitor a U.S. test, expected to take place within the next two weeks, which will trigger the end of the Soviet moratorium.
One reason for the continued U.S. testing is to pursue the X-ray laser and other directed-energy systems that are part of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed missile defense system.
The last U.S. test shot of 1985 was part of the X-ray laser program and the first test shot this year, exploded on March 22, was for an early design of a warhead for the Midgetman mobile intercontinental missile now in development, according to government sources.
Both nations have carried out roughly 16 weapons tests a year over the past few years.
The exchange with Moscow today came as top White House officials said they think that the Soviets are trying to pressure the administration into concessions on arms control issues as the price for setting a date for the summit to which Reagan and Gorbachev agreed in Geneva last November.
A senior White House official said this tactic was "not working," however, and that the administration was prepared to forgo the summit rather than make concessions on arms control issues just to get a date for the meeting.
The Soviets, according to another Reagan adviser, "are looking at other issues at this point and they're considering the summit in terms of these other issues -- disarmament, SDI and the like."
Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin is expected to return to Washington at the end of the week for a round of farewells. Diplomatic sources said he may be carrying some official word on the summit.