In a development signaling renewed efforts to improve relations, American and Soviet officials met for the first time in more than seven years Tuesday for in-depth discussions on the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
The head of the U.S. delegation, Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, met for 5 hours at the Soviet Embassy with his Kremlin counterpart, Vladimir P. Polyakov, to open discussions on an agenda that includes the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Iran-Iraq war and conditions in southern Lebanon.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is also expected to be raised during the two days of talks, scheduled to end today with a session at the U.S. Embassy.
A near-total news blackout on the meetings and repeated State Department efforts to play down their significance have given the talks an unusually low profile. But the mere fact they are taking place is one of the strongest signs yet that both governments want to improve and expand a bilateral relationship that had reached a dangerously low ebb just one year ago.
As he left the Soviet Embassy on Tuesday afternoon, Murphy parried reporters' questions, describing the discussions only as "interesting."
There were no press briefings on the talks, and none are planned until Murphy returns to Washington later this week.
Murphy was joined on the U.S. side by James P. Covey, a senior Mideast affairs specialist at the National Security Council, and Mark Parris, political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
The foundation for these discussions was laid last month in Geneva, when Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko met and agreed to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations in March. At the same meeting, they also decided that the superpowers would undertake a series of regional consultations, starting with Mideast issues.
Exchange of Views
Senior State Department officials in Washington have described the Vienna talks as an exchange of views, not negotiations, and have warned against expectations of any breakthroughs on Middle East problems.
"We see them (the talks) as they are billed, an exchange of views which will hopefully increase each side's understanding of the other's position, and I would not look for anything more to come out of these talks," one State Department official said last week.
However, a meeting with the Soviet Union on the Middle East constitutes an important message in itself: that Moscow has a role to play there.
Not since 1977, during the Administration of President Jimmy Carter, had there been any high-level U.S.-Soviet contact on Middle East issues.
"We don't deny that the Soviets have interests in the area," noted the same State Department official. The official then went on to describe the present Soviet role there as not helpful in the peace process.
Main Arms Supplier
Moscow exerts its principal influence in the region through its role as the main arms supplier to Syria, a state that holds virtual veto power over any solution to the Lebanese crisis and that would wield considerable influence in any resolution of the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute.
Aside from the region's geographical proximity to the Soviet Union, Moscow's interest is also heightened by the potential effects of turmoil there on the growing Muslim population in the southern Soviet Asian republics.
Polyakov, chief of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's Far East Division, was expected to raise again Moscow's oft-proposed idea for a U.N.-sponsored international peace conference on the Mideast, a development that would provide greater direct Soviet influence. The United States has rejected this idea in favor of direct talks among Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and is expected to do so again.
Just last week, PLO chief Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan committed themselves to a peaceful resolution of the Mideast conflict, a development greeted with cautious optimism in Washington.
U.S. officials said they would judge the sincerity of any Soviet ideas for Middle East peace by whether Moscow was willing to resume diplomatic relations with Israel as well as by how it treats Jews inside the Soviet Union. Moscow broke off relations with Israel after the 1967 Middle East War.
State Department officials have indicated that the Iran-Iraq war and Afghanistan would be brought up during the talks, but would most likely not play a central role.
U.N. Efforts Stalled
It has been nearly three years since there has been any direct talks between the two governments on Afghanistan, and U.N. diplomatic efforts to end the conflict appear hopelessly stalled.
The Soviets demand an end to the virulent anti-Communist insurgency that grips the country and international recognition for the client Marxist regime it maintains there with the help of more than 100,000 combat troops.
The United States has called for the withdrawal of Soviet forces, free elections, guarantees for Afghanistan's nonalignment and the peaceful return of the estimated 3 million to 4 million Afghan refugees currently living in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.