MOSCOW, JULY 22 -- In a major policy shift, Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev said today that Moscow is prepared to drop its demand to retain 100 Soviet nuclear missile warheads in Asia as part of a treaty to eliminate all Soviet and American intermediate-range missiles deployed in Europe and Asia.
Gorbachev, in an interview with an Indonesian newspaper that was distributed by the official Soviet news agency Tass, offered the concession contingent on the United States renouncing its right to deploy 100 warheads on its territory. The United States, which has solicited such an offer, has already agreed to do so if the Soviets consent to remove the 100 warheads from Asia.
"In an effort to accommodate the Asian countries," Gorbachev said, "the Soviet Union is prepared to agree to eliminate all of its medium-range missiles in the Asian part of the country as well.
"Shorter-range missiles will also be eliminated. In other words, we will proceed from the concept of a 'global double zero.' "
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said "we welcome reports" that Gorbachev would agree to elimination of the intermediate-range missiles. But he said that positive statements from the Soviets have been followed in the past by "unacceptable conditions" and the United States is awaiting a more detailed Soviet statement when negotiators meet Thursday in Geneva.
Gorbachev's reference to the elimination of "shorter-range missiles" in Asia was the first public indication that Moscow favors including Asian-based short-range systems in the treaty under negotiation. Until now, only European-based short-range systems had been discussed as part of the treaty.
In making the move, Gorbachev also eliminated one of the major points of contention between American and Soviet diplomats in Geneva and gave a major impetus to the stalled talks there, western diplomats here said.
The two superpowers have been maneuvering for months to break through final obstacles toward elimination of short-range and medium-range missiles from Europe and Asia. Short-range missiles are those with a range of about 300 to 600 miles; medium-range missiles have a range of about 600 to 3,500 miles.
The Soviet leader did not reiterate Moscow's earlier insistence that the United States eliminate its nuclear warheads on the 72 West German-based Pershing IA missiles, but there was no indication that this obstacle to an agreement has been resolved.
Fitzwater noted Gorbachev had mentioned no conditions, such as the demand on the Pershing warheads. Washington has rejected this demand, saying the West German missiles are not included in the talks. A senior U.S. official said he expects the Soviets to retain the demand that the Pershing warheads be included.
A State Department official expressed optimism that the Soviets would formalize Gorbachev's proposal during a plenary meeting Thursday of U.S. and Soviet negotiators in Geneva, which the Soviets requested earlier this week. If so, the official said, "we can probably conclude a treaty in time for an autumn summit."
A senior administration official told reporters that Gorbachev's acceptance of the "double-zero" proposal "doesn't eliminate" problems with verification which still have to be negotiated, but does "simplify it significantly."
Other State Department officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified, cautioned that Gorbachev's new pledge left several issues unresolved, including a squabble over the precise schedule for dismantling U.S. and Soviet missiles and a potential disagreement over provisions to verify compliance with the agreement.
Both problems are eased by Gorbachev's new pledge, the officials said, because the United States is likely to drop some of its verification and scheduling demands in response.
In the interview, Gorbachev also signaled progress on a key obstacle to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. "In principle, Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been decided upon," he said, adding that Moscow favors "a short time frame for the withdrawal."
Diplomats in Moscow have described the length of the troop pullout as one of the major issues of dispute between the sides negotiating an end to the war, with Moscow previously favoring a protracted period.
Gorbachev also reiterated the Soviet Union's main condition for troop withdrawal, however. "Interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan must be stopped and its nonresumption guaranteed," he said.
Gorbachev was interviewed by the Indonesian newspaper Merdeka on the first anniversary of his speech in Vladivostok on Soviet policy toward Asia. In the interview, he said that Soviet relations with a broad sweep of Asian countries had improved since that speech, a landmark foreign policy overture.
Repackaging the program for enhanced Asian security that he made in Vladivostok last July, Gorbachev reiterated some of the original proposals and made some new ones, including:An offer not to increase the number of Soviet aircraft deployed in Asia if Washington makes the same agreement;A proposal to reduce Soviet and American naval fleets in the Pacific. Originally made in Vladivostok, the offer also calls on both sides to restrict areas where nuclear naval vessels are allowed, cut back on maneuvers and curb antisubmarine warfare;A call for international guarantees for safe navigation in the Indian Ocean;A reiteration of the Soviet proposal to eliminate nuclear testing.
Gorbachev said the package was aimed at reducing the nuclear presence in Asia, which he identified as the key measure required to ease tensions in the region.
In discussing Soviet contacts across Asia, Gorbachev gave the highest marks to Soviet-Indian ties, calling them "exemplary in many respects."
He sounded a cautious note about the link between the Soviet Union and Japan, however. "The state of these relations is not quite as certain as of now," he said. "Certain forces in Japan managed again to bring clouds which obscured the horizon."
Soviet-Chinese relations, Gorbachev said, are characterized by "progressively broader contacts."
Gorbachev told the interviewer, "You failed to mention the United States. And we hope for cooperation with this country as well."
Gorbachev praised Indonesian-Soviet relations, saying "on most key aspects" the countries' positions "are identical."
Fitzwater said the White House did not have an explanation for the timing of Gorbachev's statement. He said Gorbachev's remarks offer "some reason for encouragement" that a treaty could be reached. White House officials have said they would like to see a treaty signed at a summit later this year. It would be the first major arms control agreement of the Reagan presidency.
Fitzwater said President Reagan discussed the Gorbachev statement with Secretary of State George P. Shultz and national security adviser Frank Carlucci, but he said Reagan did not have a detailed response.
Still of concern to U.S. officials is a veiled threat, made by Soviet negotiator Yuli M. Vorontsov last week in an article in The New York Times, to condition an agreement on medium-range missiles on agreed limits on the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, aimed at developing a comprehensive ballistic missile defense in space.
"We are convinced," Vorontsov wrote, "that the agreement on elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe, together with an agreement on key elements of a 50-percent reduction of strategic nuclear weapons and a ban on space weapons, could provide a solid basis for a future Soviet-American summit meeting." The Reagan administration has refused such SDI constraints in the past. Washington Post staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and David Hoffman, in Washington, contributed to this article.