In early editions yesterday, a photo of Soviet arms control specialist Viktor Karpov was misidentified as that of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. (Published 9/14/87)

The fate of the last 16 months of President Reagan's foreign policy may well be riding on a special Soviet airliner that will land Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and his aides in Washington this afternoon, according to administration officials.

Despite cautionary remarks Friday designed to lower expectations, the predominant view among White House, State Department and Defense Department officials is that Shevardnadze will be prepared to agree on the outlines for settling the few outstanding issues still in the way of a U.S.-Soviet treaty on intermediate-range missiles based in Europe, and will begin practical discussion of a visit here later this year by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to sign it.

An arms agreement and a November-December summit in Washington "would enormously strengthen the president's hand" for the remainder of his term, a senior White House official said. He added that after nearly a year of politically damaging revelations and investigations of his Iran-contra policies, dramatic strides in relations with the Soviet Union would be "a visable demonstration that he {Reagan} is not crippled or incapacitated."

A minority opinion, given renewed resonance by recent anti-U.S. rhetoric from Moscow, holds that Shevardnadze is coming to Washington to stonewall rather than strike a deal because the Soviets still hope for last minute U.S. concessions in arms control or for some other difficult-to-fathom reasons.

"We're willing to entertain a line of thinking that says in the end, Gorbachev may not want all this to come to fruition," reporters were told at the White House last week. The same cautious viewpoint lay behind Secretary of State George P. Shultz's complaint in an interview Friday that "the Soviets keep adding new things" to their INF demands and that, "If they want to walk away from all this effort, that's up to them."

It is unclear whether the Soviets are ready yet to give up their demand that the United States destroy, rather than simply withdraw from Europe, U.S. nuclear warheads on West German Pershing 1a missiles. Some officials believe Shevardnadze will make one last and fruitless push on this issue here this week before agreeing to an INF deal.

In the main the expectation is for early completion of an INF treaty, a Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Washington this year and a return summit in Moscow next year. Conservatives in the administration fear -- and moderates hope -- that these developments will establish new directions and priorities for Reagan's final months in office.

Officials on both sides of the internal administration divide said that if Shevardnadze has come to clinch a deal and a summit, the chances are good for additional accords later with the Soviets, possibly in strategic arms and nuclear testing and conceivably on such major international issues as Afghanistan. A series of new agreements would permit the most outspokenly anti-Soviet U.S. president to leave office as a man of peace, with a credible claim to have both rebuilt U.S. military forces and placed U.S.-Soviet relations on a more constructive and realistic path.

"There is a better than even chance that a {INF} treaty and summit would lead to detente breaking out all over again," said an apprehensive conservative in the Pentagon, whose political leadership headed by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger lost several internal skirmishes as the Shevardnadze visit approached. "We run a real risk of repeating errors of the last time we tried this, in the 1970s."

According to this official, the pressures from Congress, the press and first lady Nancy Reagan to match apparent Soviet openings would be "almost irresistible" at a White House occupied by a man who "isn't the same Ronald Reagan who won the election in 1980."

A State Department official, however, contended that the developing situation is fundamentally different from the 1970s era of detente. "Unlike those days, the two countries are confronting all major issues, negative ones such as Afghanistan and human rights in the Soviet Union as well as positive ones such as arms control and trade. Consolidating our broad four-part agenda {arms control, regional conflicts, human rights, bilateral issues} would give us a viable basis for future relations over a long period of time."

Shevardnadze's current mission to Washington is the fourth in four years by a Soviet foreign minister on the eve of the annual general debate of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Then-foreign minister Andrei Gromyko's trip to the White House in September 1984, served to reestablish top level U.S.-Soviet diplomacy on the eve of the U.S. presidential election after several years of hostile words and diplomatic stalemate. Shevardnadze's initial visit here in September 1985, was a preliminary step on the road to the already-announced Geneva summit of Reagan and Gorbachev of November that year.

Last September's Shevardnadze visit was dominated by contentious negotiations in a near-crisis atmosphere following the Moscow arrest of U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff in retaliation for the New York arrest of a Soviet U.N. functionary. In the midst of the dealings, Shevardnadze handed Reagan a letter from Gorbachev containing a surprise proposal for an October summit meeting in Iceland. It was announced the day after Daniloff was released.

There is considerable suspense but "no electricity in the air" as this September's mission-from-Moscow approaches, according to a State Department official helping to prepare for the meetings scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday.

U.S. officials see many Soviet positions that seem to be in flux as Shevardnadze flies to Washington, including:Military doctrine. As part of his "new thinking" about foreign policy, Gorbachev and, increasingly since this summer, other senior Soviets have spoken of "reasonable sufficiency" in military power as that nation's goal, which implies a major reduction from the Soviet military requirements and forces of the past and present.

U.S. officials "have taken note of" the recent public statements and some intriguing private hints of willingness to reduce Soviet preponderence in tanks and other conventional forces. There is no evidence of actual force reductions based on the new doctrine, according to Washington sources. But if "reasonable sufficiency" is more than propaganda, the implications for the Soviet armed forces and foreign policy, and the U.S. responses to them, would be large. Afghanistan. Soviet officials have been saying for months that Gorbachev has made a basic decision to withdraw Soviet forces, and recently they have been hinting broadly that Moscow is willing to reduce its period of troop withdrawal to 12 months after a cease-fire. Previously they had offered a withdrawal period of 18 months through the Afghan government in U.N.-sponsored talks.

A special meeting of the U.N. talks, which was held last week, at Soviet-Afghan request, produced only an offer to reduce the withdrawal time to 16 months, far short of the breakthrough that had been expected. It was "a very curious exercise," said a State Department official following the issue. It seemed to give credence to a U.S. assessment that the Soviets still have not made "the hard decision" to get out. But many in Washington believe that such a Soviet decision is closer than ever before. The Persian Gulf. Continued Soviet support for U.N. steps to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war is considered crucial, following the Soviet willingness in July to support the U.N. demand for a cease-fire and return to international borders.

The Soviets have engaged in increasingly active diplomacy with both Iran and Iraq in recent weeks. "This is being very carefully handled by Moscow," said a well-informed State Department official. If they play an honest-broker role to help reduce or end the hostilities, "the Soviets would validate their claim to be a great power" in the Middle East, this official said. On the other hand, Moscow could block further U.N. action and be a troublesome actor in the Gulf. Human rights. Recent Soviet steps to permit prominent Jewish "refuseniks" to emigrate, plus legal reforms and others steps, has raised hopes for a more humane policy in Moscow. The main U.S. effort now is to "lock in" human rights advances by pressing Moscow to establish procedures for dealing constructively and predictably over time with dissidents, dual nationals, Soviet Jews and other human rights cases.